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Flexible work: The ‘how’ not the ‘why’

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Parents of children under six or disabled children under the age of eighteen have the right to apply to their employer to work more flexibly but what about people without kids? Carol Savage, founder of flexible work specialists Flexworks (formerly Flexecutive), argues that you can get better results, and less peer resentment, by recognising that it is how you work, not why you work flexibly that is important.


Most working men and women do not regard flexible working as an issue solely for parents and carers, and according to the Financial Mail’s Flexecutive survey published in May 2005, believe that flexible working should be an option for all employees including the highest senior management.

There are many fantastic examples on our books of creative thinking used in flexible working from the job-sharing heads of forward planning at BBC Scotland to the part time director of marketing and communications at e-skills. Why they want to work flexibly is not an issue – what they deliver in results, rightly, is.

Businesses will better profit from their flexible workforce if they stop looking at flexibility as a parent’s issue, and start to see the advantages of a different way of working.

Let’s just look at the evidence: research for the Greater London Authority has shown that if the proportion of women in part-time work in London was the same as the national average, London’s economic output would be £1.4 billion greater, while a new study from Working Families makes a clear correlation between productivity, work-life balance and good management.

Our research among HR professionals showed that 90% of respondents say a flexible work policy improves employee retention, 81% that it improves motivation and 62% that it lowers stress levels – one of the biggest causes of workplace absenteeism.

In spite of this nearly half (45%) of those questioned in the survey felt that part-time working damages women’s’ chances of promotion, while 57% felt that in general, part-timers have fewer opportunities for promotion and nearly one third (29%) think that it is ‘less acceptable’ for men to work part-time. Clearly, a sea change in attitudes is still required if employers are to get the best out of their workforce.

The best way of tackling this sea change is with more visible role models of flexible working, and a more team-based approach to delivery. Flexworks has collated an impressive list of senior flexible case studies, people whose delivery exceeds number of hours worked. One such case study, Sandra Sellers, Head of Pensions at Inchcape Plc explains that peer resentment should not be an issue if the results do all the talking:

“The key to making flexibility work at a senior level is that the onus of flexibility and availability should be on the employee, not the employer,” says Sellers “I commit to working 171 days a year, and am empowered to use these days wisely. That means that if I am required to come in at 8am on Monday and work a five day week because we have a big project on then I will do so. If we have less on the following week, then I can choose not to come in at all.

The key is that I am available for my employers when I am most needed – and on the days that I am in the office, I work the hours it takes to do the job.”

When she presented her case to her employers, Sellers was focused on how her work pattern could benefit them. “A lot of my work involves problem solving and creative thinking and that doesn’t happen nine to five. By changing the way I worked I could better cope with the demands of a job that would cause burnout if I continued on a full-time basis. This way, my employers continue to get the best from me as a ‘knowledge worker’.”

When she first approached her employers with her proposal, Sellers realised that she would need to be flexible throughout the negotiation process. “The initial reaction from my employers was to suggest I worked full time with two days a week working from home – at that stage, this was the kind of flexible option which they understood, and which was already in practice throughout the organisation.”

Sellers continues: “I realised that I would have to try it their way first before going back to my original vision. I worked on this basis for six months to show that the results I achieved did not depend on my being in the office full time, and my employers were then willing to try things my way.”

Flexing the team:
However, and particularly at middle or junior management level, peer resentment can still be an issue when a colleague takes up the right to work flexibly. It all comes down to how much you think as a team. As long as people think individually rather than in terms of what the team has to deliver, then people are going to get dumped on and resentment will fester.

It is only when work teams come together, agree how they want to work (how they all want to work) and how they deliver results to their board, that flexible work regimes start to deliver, and what is more, deliver ahead of traditional long-hours regimes.

A case in point is our work in developing flexible working solutions with Centrica. There are 50 people and teams in Centrica’s emerging markets department in Stockley Park, and this is where we started. Each team came up with a totally different solution to working flexibly, with different ground rules. This was very powerful, because it catered for everyone’s needs, not just working parents.

The key issue for the teams was to focus on what they needed to deliver, rather than what hours they were putting in. It then became a question of allowing the team to fit their own pieces of the puzzle together, and agree what tools they need in order to do their job in a new way. Instant messaging, for example was identified as an important communications tool.

The results of the first pilot were so positive, with a motivated, creatively reinvigorated team that pilots have been rolled out to 3,000 people in the company’s corporate centre in Windsor, and among 300 staff at central information systems.

So the message is clear. Focus on creating a way of working that best serves your customer needs. Peer conflict comes from allowing one group of people to have flexible rights over another. When you recognise that you must start with a level playing field, then you can enhance productivity and motivation across the whole team, and at whatever level.

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Annie Hayes

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