Nov 20

Understanding: Flexible Working

In this 6-part series, we look at all the main styles of office working, the benefits and drawbacks of each style, and whether they might work for you. This is the first article, Understanding: Flexible Working.

Flexible Working

When lockdown forced thousands of office-based workers in the UK home in march, executives across the country grappled not only with the logistics of how to make remote and flexible working possible, but the impact on workers’ productivity and performance, as well as wellbeing.

And while this went much better than most expected, company leaders are now looking to the longer-term future of their workplace strategy, trying to understand what they need to do to make to equip their workforces and companies for the years ahead.

And as we look to the future, one term “flexible working” has become increasingly prominent as a potential solution, endorsed by CEOs from some of the world’s biggest companies, such as Facebook, Microsoft, and Blackrock. But what actually is it, where did it come from, and will work for you?

What is Flexible Working?

Flexible working defined as “a way of working that suits an employee’s needs” and has been a legal right for most workers since 2003. It is different from remote working (working entirely from a non-company location, such as the home) and agile working (which includes flexible working among other practices and systems), two terms with which it is commonly confused.

However, flexible working can mean much more than just flexibility around locations and start times. Amongst other forms such as job sharing or term-time working,  flexible working includes:

  • Compressed hours: working your usual hours in fewer days
  • Flextime: fitting your working hours around agreed core times
  • Flexible Hours: Changing daily working hours to fit in with other commitments such as school hours or care arrangements
  • Flexible Locations: Working from home or a co-working space some of the time
  • Self-rostering:  Your shift pattern is drawn up to match your preferred times as closely as possible
  • Staggered hours: The provision to start and finish your days at different times
  • Annualised hours: Your working time is organised around the number of hours to be worked over a year rather than over a week

“Flexible working is no longer a ‘nice to have’ benefit, it’s an expectation for many employees.” Says Andy Caldicott, Managing Director at Peoplevalue. “But while it might appear easy to deliver, it’s important to make sure your flexible working policy adequately meets the needs of your employees, operational structure, and business culture.”

There are potentially significant drawbacks and benefits to remote working in any shape or form, and the success largely depends on the team dynamics in which an employee operates, the facilities (both digital and physical) available to them,  and the workplace culture.

Where did it come from?

German management consultant Christel Kammerer developed the first form of flexible working- Flextime (Gleitzeit) in 1965 as a way to cater to family responsibilities, allowing more women to enter the West German workforce, which was suffering worker shortages at the time.

However, the first time the concept of flexible working was truly implemented was at the Munich offices of aerospace giant MBB, where 3,000 employees arrived and left at the same time each day- overloading infrastructure, leading to staff arriving late and leaving early, damaging morale and output.

MBB appointed Kammerer to resolve the situation, and she implemented the Gleitzeit (Flextime) concept, giving staff a two-hour window at either end of the day to arrive/leave, reducing traffic issues and improving morale and productivity.

This concept evolved to include periods of core time, when you must attend work, and the option to complete your allotted hours at any time that suited you. Over the next thirty years, the concept grew in scope and popularity, until 2003, when the option to work flexibly was enshrined in UK law. Since then, further growth developed it into a recognised trend, until COVID-19 propelled it into the national consciousness.

Why Does it work?

According to Executives, one of the greatest benefits of a flexible working model is employee retention and attraction, as it strengthens employee loyalty and enhances perceptions of the company as an attractive place to work. 87% of those looking for jobs want to work flexibly, and regard it as more important than a larger salary.

And while the digital infrastructure can be a challenge, it can open up a far wider talent pool, as Marice Ferre, Insightec CEO, points out. “We have remote workers all over the world. It has its challenges, but in today’s world of connectivity, it makes sense. It is a great way to scale. We have made it work by building infrastructure to support remote access.”

A lot of the fear from managers around switching to a flexible model centered around the perceived drop in flexibility in employees when working alone, but 65% of workers said they felt more productive and empowered when working flexibly. A study showed flexible workers were up to 13% more productive on the days they worked from home, due to a combination of fewer distractions and working longer hours- on average 1.4 days extra per month.

A lot depends on the company culture and team dynamics that flexible workers operate within. Kirt Walker, Nationwide CEO, said he hasn’t been disappointed with remote work: “We hire for attitude. We have built a culture where we can trust associates. And they are using the same technology now that they had in the office. We don’t try to hold people accountable with the amount of time they’re putting in, but rather how well they are doing on performance indicators.” Understanding flexible working and how to manage culture in a flexible workforce is key to successfully implementing the model.

Why does it not work?

However, that study was carried out at a call centre, where participants had no children in the house, a dedicated workroom, and a good internet connection- which is simply not the case for the vast majority of the UK workforce. Workers with more varied and less trackable roles, that rely on collaboration and networking, may struggle significantly, as those with young children, pets, or a cluttered environment.

Researchers have also demonstrated that face-to-face teams perform better than remote ones in creative and complex projects. Henry Grabar of Slate attributed this to what’s known as “psychological safety.” It’s about feeling comfortable expressing ideas with your co-workers. “When you work online, it can be harder to read people,” Grabar said. “So, you see a kind of self-censorship.” 

Over time, this lack of creative communication can seriously stunt the growth of a company. As Mark Golan, Google’s VP of real estate and development, said “People are very efficient at doing their work at home in their home office, once they know what they are doing. The problem is when you have to decide what to do next. You run the risk of being very efficient at doing the wrong work, and I think over time that’s the risk that we run.”

The factors that employees miss most about the office just simply can’t be recreated virtually (or it would have been done already). The most missed factors of the office are socialising with colleagues both on a personal and professional level- the incidental and spontaneous communication, and this also hurts the company, because ultimately, more collaboration and decision making is done in corridors than meetings. Understanding Flexible working, and managing a combination of in-office and remote working can help to mitigate this.

Will it work for you?

While it may be very difficult to judge the long-term success of a flexible working model in your company, there are various factors that will likely impact the success of such a move. Understanding flexible working will be essential to anticipating and mitigating the myriad pitfalls that exist while maximising the potential benefits.

Many employees have a role that comprises a variety of different focussed and team-oriented tasks, some of which are more suitable for doing remotely than others. Carefully planning a flexible model, which empowers staff to make their own decisions about how they work best while maintaining accountability is critical to the success of any long-term shift to flexible working.

However, Flexible working is just that – Flexible. As covered earlier, there are many different types of flexible working, and not all are likely to be appropriate for an organisation or any one employee- while some people will naturally thrive on the greater empowerment, others will struggle with the lack of structure, and this is also true of companies as a whole and the teams within them- not all will respond the same way. Understanding flexible working, and what it will mean for your company and employees, as well as the ramification on the design of your workspace. will be crucial in understanding whether it is the right long-term option for you and how to implement it in the best possible way.