Everyone's talking about it. Flexible working is never far from the headlines. Most polls show a majority of employees want more flexibility and, with modern technology, it is becoming ever easier to work remotely. So what are the barriers?
One that many advocates of flexible working bring up is managers' attitudes. Katie Slater, founding Director of career management company A Brave New World, says "managers tend to be really focussed on the bottom line (profits etc) which is absolutely fine. However, we have found from our research that in particular mums and dads returning to work requiring flexibility are not as valued as others. Perception is a huge issue and this accompanied by lack of confidence in a lot of cases from the returnee can add to the frustration of both sides."
Recent research from the Henley School of Management found that part of the problem behind some managers' negative attitudes is that flexible working is still sold as an employee benefit rather than something that is profitable for companies, for instance, in terms of retaining skilled staff or providing customers with a 24-hour service.
Its Tomorrow's Leaders project also found many managers felt neither they nor their staff had had sufficient training in how to work flexibly or manage flexible working. IT and communications was a particular problem. Only 22% said their companies had invested heavily in remote working technology. However, many companies have the infrastructure to support remote working. The problem was that they weren't using it: 50% of managers did not think they were using the networking technology they had effectively.
The project also examined the need for a new type of management focused on leadership skills rather than the traditional overseeing role managers have taken in the past. Such radical change can create insecurity and defensiveness.
Adapting to the 21st century
The report concludes that managers and companies have still to adapt to the working needs of the 21st century and that many are lagging behind. "It is now possible for the time and place of work to be fitted around an individual's personal life rather than the other way around, but this reality has yet to reach most managers," it says.
Management is still built on presenteeism and long hours are seen as evidence that a person is working effectively. "We reward input not output," it says. "One of the major early challenges of the 21st century is therefore to improve the management of output by measuring and rewarding productivity."
For Katie Slater, the solution is training. Her company runs an innovative programme that targets both the manager and the returnee. Its Integration Training Programmes include "open discussion with managers on their perceptions". "We work with the returnee to get focus on their own career motivators, values and beliefs so that they not only will understand what kind of role they want to return to but also the culture that best matches their needs," says Slater.
"We also encourage them to understand that they have to be realistic about their own expectations on returning to work - it's a two-way process after all. We find that once all of this is completed the manager has understood the value of flexibility and the benefits to the organisation. The retention of the returnee is optimised."
Some tips on managing flexible workers
Firstly, you need to redefine how you judge employees' effectiveness and productivity. With more and more staff working remotely, you cannot judge them on presenteeism. You need to evaluate their work based on what they produce rather than the hours they put in.
For employers the key areas that need looking at to promote positive flexibility are:
-Setting the right culture and procedures for applying for flexible working. It is not enough to have flexible working policies on the books. You need to encourage managers to think positively and creatively about flexibility, to see the advantages it can bring to the company. Procedures on managing flexibility need to be properly monitored to avoid a sense of unfairness creeping in. Employees need to feel that the policies are being fairly applied.
- Ensure that requests for flexibility are managed on the basis of whether they are feasible for the company or team. Scheduling will need to be carefully managed, for instance, to ensure that not everyone in the team is working from home on a day when at least one member needs to be in the office to cover. However, flexibility implies being willing to think out of the box and collaborate with employees on ways around potential hurdles.
- Ensure your IT people are able to cope with the different demands of having multiple employees working away from the office. Remote employees may need to have access to IT back-up and not be reliant on their own resources.
- Keep the right to refuse a flexible work offer - some jobs are not possible, for instance, on a flexible basis.-
- Ensure managers are trained in how to evaluate staff performance based on productivity rather than hours worked. Ensure also that managers carefully and fairly evaluate what is possible, for instance, from part-time workers so that they do not end up working lots of unpaid overtime.
- Contact and communication - employees who work remotely must be involved in team discussions either through conference calls or regular face-to-face meetings. They should be included in social gatherings and have opportunities to catch up on office gossip so they are in the loop about what is happening. Ensure internal information is circulated to all employees.
- Try to cut down on duplication of technology if staff are working in multiple locations. A laptop which they can take from one place to the other, for instance, will cut down on costs.
- Health and safety - you must ensure that remote workers are checked to see that they have safe working spaces, for instance, enough space to work.
- Ensure employees who work mainly from home have some space at the office so that they feel part of the team.