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Flexible working – where are we now?

Flexible working

I recently took part in a Facebook Live event looking at flexible working with Katy Fridman, the founder of Flexible Working for Mums Like Me and it left me reflecting on the current state of flexible working.

In 2016 Lancaster University’s Work Foundation predicted that flexible working will be the main way of working for 70% of organisations by 2020[1].  Yet the proliferation of groups on social media supporting individuals to hunt down the rare flexible working opportunities seems to suggest these organisations are hard to come by.  In just 5 months of existence, Flexible Working for Mums Like Me has reached over 11,000 members all searching for flexible opportunities.  Are we really saying that over the next 2 years, the challenge of finding flexible working will have significantly reduced and it will have become the norm?

Where are we now?

My first thought is where are we starting from?   How many organisations have flexible working available now?  Finding hard data is difficult.  I found one survey that suggested 57% but it wasn’t very rigorous so not necessarily reliable.  Reflecting on the organisations I meet daily in my work, I am lucky to work in some that are truly enlightened and have made significant strides towards developing an agile culture.  Permission is not required to work in a location other than your office and you don’t need to shuffle out the office to leave ‘early’ to pick your child up from childcare.  However, I also meet many others where the opposite is true and where hours in the office are still what counts.  I recently visited a large firm who thought they had nailed flexible working by allowing people to work at home one day a week.

It helps to look at the definition of flexible working.  The CIPD define it as ‘a type of working arrangement that gives some degree of flexibility on how long, where and when employees work’.  I think there is a tendency to think of it as part-time but flexible working encompasses much more than this such as working from home, annual hours’ contracts, compressed hours, job share, core hours’ arrangements.  If we look at 70% in this context, then it may more achievable.

Flexible Working for Mums Like Me polled their members to ask what their optimal way of working flexibly is.  The majority of respondents said working from home/ remotely, followed by school hours or 2-3 days per week.

Here lies the challenge.  The type of flexible working that many people want still isn’t readily available and even less so if you are job hunting.  How do we change this situation?  The challenge is multi-faceted so I won’t pretend that I have all of the answers but here are five ideas

Job Design

Go back to job design. Do all full-time roles have to be full time or could they be divided in different ways e.g. between 2 people job sharing 2-3 days per week. What elements of the job work do both individuals have to pick up versus which parts can be done by one job share partner alone?  The work may be full time but the people delivering it may not need to be.

Involve men

Involve the men both at work and at home. The demand for flexible working is coming from both men and women.  I believe that the more men that start to ask for flexible working the more quickly the change will happen.  It means negotiation at home too and women themselves not making assumptions about picking up the majority of the unpaid work at home.

Tackle bias

In a recent survey by the Institute of Leadership and Management[2]27% of managers who had NEVER experienced flexible working thought it was a bad idea!  The University of Kent’s 2017 study found “one-third of workers in the UK hold flexibility stigma – that is bias towards those who work flexibly and fear that working flexibly can lead to negative career outcomes’[3]. Whilst it can be hard to challenge entrenched views on this, encouraging conversations at work and sharing of experience between groups of line managers can start to shift this negative bias.

Provide proper support for flexible working

Moving from full time to flexible working takes thought and planning.  Many individuals and line managers focus on the process of agreeing to it without thinking about how they will manage it on a daily basis.  It is hard going from 5 days a week down to 3.  You have to manage your time, expectations and mindset quite differently.  Working from home well and feeling part of your work team takes planning and effective use of technology so support people to do this (small plug – here at How Do You Do It we can help through our programmes for individuals and line managers on flexible working).

Celebrate success wherever you find it in an organisation

It is fantastic when top leaders role model flexible behaviours in the way that they work, but role models can be at all levels of an organisation. Sometimes it can be more powerful for an individual to see someone who is like them and is finding a way of making it work.  Then it isn’t so easy to dismiss the success with reasons such as having the money to buy flexible childcare or having the control over their work as they are more senior.  Share these successes across the organisation to show what is possible for the widest possible group of people.

I should stress at the end of this, I think the tide is turning.  More people talk about their flexibility, more managers are open to it and more organisations are endeavouring to shift their culture.   Perhaps that 70% isn’t so far out of reach after all.

[1] The Work Foundation, 2016, ‘Working Anywhere, a winning formula for good work’ http://www.theworkfoundation.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/398_Working-Anywhere.pdf

[2] Institute of Leadership and Management, 2016, Flexible Working – goodbye to the nine to five – https://www.institutelm.com/resourceLibrary/FlexibleWorking.html

[3] The University of Kent, 2017, Work Autonomy, Flexibility and Work Life Balance, p3 – http://wafproject.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/BT_125709_WAF_report_v3.pdf

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