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Taking a strategic approach to flexible working

Virginia Herlihy

I recently spoke at the FLEXPO Leaders digital summit, talking about the impact of COVID-19 on gender. It feels like we are at a crossroads – the experience of the past few months could signal a huge step towards gender parity at work as gender becomes removed from conversations around flexibility. Equally, it risks setting things back decades. Women have borne the brunt of unpaid work at home during the pandemic and having been furloughed in greater numbers due to childcare responsibilities find themselves more vulnerable in an economic downturn.

As someone who has been banging the drum that flexible work is a lever for creating more inclusive workplaces for years, it was gratifying to see the shift during the summit from it being viewed as a tactical favour to support working mothers to a strategic imperative with far-ranging implications for how businesses are organised.

This was reflected in the broad agenda which covered flexibility from the perspective of:

• Impact on diversity and inclusion
• Leadership
• Management skills
• Team dynamics
• Office design
• Recruitment and retention
• The role of HR
• Wellbeing

It struck me that even a couple of years ago it would have been hard to imagine a flexible working event with such a wide-ranging agenda – let alone one that attracted several hundred business leaders or that had such high profile speakers and panellists covering a range of different business and expert perspectives.

Whilst the topics covered throughout the day were broad, some very clear themes emerged and I wanted to reflect upon just a few of these in the context of how COVID-19 has the potential to fundamentally alter our relationship with the time, place and way in which we work.

What flexible work means.

There is a risk that when we talk about flexible work, we instantly mean the same thing for everyone i.e. shorter hours or remote working. What was clear from the conversations throughout the day is that flexible work means different things to everyone and that the business challenge is to create working environments and management structures that can thrive with people working in many different ways.

In fact, we should be very hesitant to describe what happened during the pandemic as ‘flexible work’ as Dan Reed head of digital and platform delivery at Barclays pointed out “This is not flexible working, this is the least flexibly I’ve ever worked. Mandated to work from home and with kids!” Businesses that judge what happened in the pandemic as their only measure of how adopting a more flexible approach might work are missing the opportunity to see how allowing people a choice (including a choice to work in the office) is the key to successfully taking business advantage of a more flexible approach.

Short term versus long term planning.

COVID-19 forced the flexible work genie out of the bottle and many industries that had previously resisted were compelled overnight to fundamentally alter the way they worked. Change that would otherwise have taken decades to happen incrementally has, within a matter of months exposed millions of people to the possibility of a more blended way of working. For many people adopting a more flexible approach on an ongoing basis has the potential to improve productivity and wellbeing, and the organisations that spoke at FLEXPO have certainly realised that the genie of flexible work cannot be put back.

These organisations very much saw flexibility as a contributor to business success and something that they had a responsibility to make work for the long term rather than a solely short-term response to an emergency. I saw this as a quite fundamental shift. Traditionally the onus has been on the person working flexibly to demonstrate that it could work – part of the ‘favour’ mentality that has dogged gender progress in particular. A shift to organisations recognising it is up to them to make it work for everyone feels like a positive step forward.

The importance of trust 

Over the years one of the main objections I’ve seen from managers and organisations to allowing people to work flexibly has been fear that they would have no oversight of whether people were working or not. I have always been slightly astounded by this attitude as it suggests a far wider performance issue. If grown adults need minute by minute supervision then as Paul Hamer, CEO, Sir Robert McAlpine pointed out “If you can’t trust your people because you can’t see them then either you’ve got a problem or you hired the wrong people.”

The experience of mass remote working during lockdown showed that in the most testing of circumstances, as people were living in fear and had their usual support networks such as childcare removed, productivity wasn’t adversely affected and organisations were able to implement a huge change management project that was completely dependent upon trust. There was widespread agreement amongst the panellists that the more you involved people in the decisions and the more they understood the importance, the more they over-delivered. When employees were trusted to do their role in a way that worked for them, they generally repaid that trust with increased loyalty and commitment: allowing organisations to look at outputs rather than presenteeism.

Equipping managers to lead.

In our work with working carers and parents, we have always seen that managers are critical to turning well-meaning company policy in relation to flexible work into an embedded part of the culture. The thing we hear most consistently is that managers struggle to interpret how the values and policies of the wider organisation apply to the individuals in their teams. The additional challenges of managing teams where large numbers of people are now working different patterns and in different locations means that upskilling managers becomes even more important.

Sam Valentine, head of employee experience Cambridge Assessment highlighted the challenge, pointing out; “Inconsistency and everyone finding what works for them is good. It is a sign that the policy is working, and you are managing the person and not trying to do a one size fits all approach.”  The complexity this brings to managers who are juggling the needs of individuals with the objectives of the business cannot be underestimated. Successful organisations will be those that recognise the pivotal role managers play in turning policy into reality and support them to develop the skills to achieve this.

What the day showed me overall was that good organisations have really grasped the wider opportunity of flexibility. They are taking a strategic approach to designing work in ways that will considerably broaden the scope for people from a far wider range of backgrounds to participate and succeed. Removing the shackles of a 9-5 fixed location has the potential to significantly increase the diversity and inclusivity of organisations.

The risk, however, is that as companies face challenging times, they default to what they know and choose the short-term path of least resistance. My hope is that enough people have now experienced how having more control over their working day can increase their wellbeing and their ability to successfully perform their role, that the momentum is firmly on the side of progress and not regression.

Much of the FLEXPO Leaders Digital Summit is now available to view on-demand via their YouTube channel.  Plus you can view my interview about the impact of COVID on gender parity with Madeline Cole the founder of FLEXPO here.

Virginia Herlihy, CEO and Founder, How Do You Do It

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