Flexible working practices – establishing the new frontier
Flexible working isn’t unchartered territory; intrepid innovators have already mapped the benefits of increased productivity, boosted profit and employee goodwill. According to Vodafone, three-quarters of companies worldwide have flexible working policies. Despite this, there remain some potential pitfalls and rocky terrain associated with flexible working practices.
Key concerns of flexi-work sceptics (Fleptics? No? Okay then…) are that it will:
- Restrict collaboration. If your staff works in different places and times they can’t be as productive as they would be if they were all together in an office.
- Mean employees don’t work as hard. When the cat’s away the mouse will play. If left unsupervised workers will do less.
- Divide the staff. ‘It’s arguably far harder to build a bond and strong team ethos if everybody is working in different locations,’ says Emma Gilroy, Brand Development Manager at Direct 365. ‘We’re in danger of losing good old-fashioned “water-cooler talk”!’
There is always a reason not to do something though. That didn’t stop the pioneers of old who pushed on through sheer determination. They discovered the new world, established a township and moved on, seeking new riches, experiences and lands. So why not be bold with your business?
Take one small step
You’ve established your business. You’ve discovered a market and staked a claim within it. Where do you go from here? How can you improve your business while keeping your workers healthy and happy? How can you increase productivity, diversity and innovation? The answer is flexible working practices.
But how do you avoid the potential pitfalls listed above?
When outcomes are unknown, people learn and act based on their neighbours’ behaviour. Following this logic, there are lessons you can learn from around the world on flexible working. Rather than jetting off to the far-flung corners of the globe to learn these teachings, let us be your guide.
Here are some hints and tips for implementing flexible working practices from across the globe. This is your map to the new world.
Lessons from the United Kingdom
Let’s start on home turf. Despite all UK workers having the right to ask for flexible hours, only 27 percent of companies in 2015 gave their staff the option. In order for businesses to stay competitive within the labour market this must change.
Lancaster University’s Work Foundation predicts more than half of UK companies will have flexible hours by 2017. They also suggest that this will rise to more than 70 percent by 2020. This rise is due – at least in part – to millennial employees who want a better work/life balance. They want ‘a sense of purpose’ beyond financial successes. If you want the talent of the future, you’re going to have to offer incentives.
But what changes to your flexible working practices should you make to help employees find that sense of purpose? Your countrymen are already showing you how:
- Offer your employees shared parental leave to care for newborns. Allowing both partners greater flexibility has a number of benefits: female staff can take less time off work due to childbirth; they won’t suffer from the ‘motherhood penalty’ and you get more out of a skilled employee. Research has also shown that men who take parental leave have a more active role in their children’s lives.
- Offer unpaid leave to your employees à la ‘Virgin’. You can allow this (within reason) to keep them motivated, increasing their work-time productivity. If you let workers develop in their personal life you will see them flourish professionally.
- Allow your workers to work from home or switch to part-time hours. This way they can build productivity into their wider lives, without sacrificing either.
Exciting examples from Europe
Flexible working practices are on the rise throughout the European Union. Several member states have enacted laws and policies that benefit businesses by:
- Improving the work/life balance of employees.
- Increasing productivity.
- Reducing staff turnover.
Sweden saw these benefits after companies’ trialled six-hour workdays. With a reduced working day, employees are less likely to lose concentration and fatigue is less likely to set in.
France has also been leading the charge in reduced working hours. They have an average working week of 35 hours and have been considering a law banning out-of-hours work emails. Why? Because messaging technology shackles people to their work. They can’t run and they can’t hide.
It’s easy to understand the arguments that such a ban would affect productivity. While some argue this ban would ‘punish’ ambitious employees who are available at all hours, we need to think more long-term. The Chartered Management Institute found this ‘always-on culture’ leads to burnout, familial conflict and ill-health.
You don’t necessarily need an outright ban on emails, but you could impose restrictions on out-of-hours emails. Some companies have already put restrictions in place:
- Allow employees to choose what messages to answer, reducing information overload. If you let them choose what is useful to them out of hours and they’ll be able to use their time more effectively. Emails tend to fill workers’ time. Don’t let 24 hours of access mean 24 hours of work.
- Automatically delete all emails when employees are out of office.
Amazing ideas from Asia
Unlike Europe, there are much fewer flexible working practices in Asia. The mindset that workers must stay in the office is so ingrained that, in Japan, falling asleep at work is a sign of dedication. Workers are struggling to balance work with their private lives. In particular, a lack of flexibility is disenfranchising women in the workforce. This is due to the pressures of raising children, which is still viewed as a woman’s activity.
Japan is starting to fight this though, through flexible working. The aim is to improve inclusivity, increase creativity and productivity, and combat ‘masochistic’ working hours. The government suggests starting work earlier so employees can leave at 5pm. Employees are happier to get their work done outside normal working hours if it means spending more quality time with their family. What’s more, you’re still getting the productivity of a full-time employee.
China has also become much more tolerant of flexible working. This is promising for a country in which 600,000 people a year were dying from overworking. Even the most well-off workers complain of ‘insomnia, fatigue, a lack of energy, obesity and frequent illness’.
Firms are learning from their mistakes by implementing semi-flexible hours. Listening to differing perspectives of the wider workforce can increase your competitiveness and profitability. If you want happy employees, you need to understand them and give them leeway to live their life.
And so we come to the end of our journey. We have travelled far and wide to glean wisdom about flexible working practices. Quite like the pioneers of old it can all be too much when you find yourself on a new frontier for your business.
The journey can be long but as we’ve seen there is treasure for the taking. All you have to do is take the first step.