Long before the Covid pandemic, many people have wanted more flexible working conditions, however, organisations have largely resisted embracing formal change. A TUC poll in September 2019 found one in three requests for flexible working were being turned down and that flexi-time was unavailable to over half of the UK workforce.
Since then, the way companies, teams and individuals work has irrevocably changed. The most recent Future Forum Pulse survey found that over 50% of global knowledge workers from all age groups now want a hybrid work style; some days in an office and some remote. Making hybrid work can unlock acceptance of all workplace flexibility and should be a concern for all employers who want to attract talent to their organisations.
When flexible hours are not enough
For many people, however, flexible hours or working from home is not enough. Flexible working needs to encompass more than just where you work; it's as much about when and how much you work.
For those focused on career progression needing to work less than 5 days a week, the flexibility available via a job share can be an optimal solution. Given job shares are treated like one full-time employee, the workload is distributed in the same way as full-time staff but where the job share duo can flex their lead responsibilities depending on project and life demands. While part-time jobs tend to be more limited to roles that are feasible with reduced hours, job shares unlock the potential for all roles to be shared. They provide continuity within the role, have clear handovers and no gaps in productivity. Job sharers are equally as suitable for promotion as their full-time colleagues, and are less likely to fall victim to bias against working fewer hours.
Requesting flexibility won’t always make it happen
If we consider that an aversion to flexible working is likely to have negatively skewed workplace wisdom by hampering the ability of a significant proportion of the working population to contribute, the government’s consultation to reform flexible working regulations is welcome. But does it go far enough?
A day 1 legal right to request flexibility does not make flexible working the default. It might bring the conversation forward, but that alone doesn’t make it easier. Many interviewees could still feel inhibited from bringing up the question before accepting a role, for fear of missing out; which is an issue for those who need to maintain flexibility in role. Unfortunately then, it will not succeed in helping to banish entrenched behavioural biases like flexibility stigma. The negative perception that flexible workers contribute less because, amongst other things, they are seen (in the office) less is still endemic in many organisations where leaders remain resistant to new ways of working, because they can.
Enabling employees to manage their work autonomously is not only key to unlocking trust, it is an essential condition for positive interdependence amongst employees that makes them care deeply about what they do. So as offices reopen, and people spend less time there, leaders must provide the appropriate framework to make hybrid work, while offering teams choice. Organisations need to act fast and enable people to do their work at the time and in the place that produces the best outcome. Successful adoption of a mainstream hybrid model is critical to normalising the availability and acceptance of all flexible working styles and practices.
Flexibility stigma hampers flexible thinking
Those who need flexibility most are often trying to balance a meaningful career with outside responsibilities. Flexible workers tend to be highly effective because they have limited time for indiscriminate activity and therefore allocate specific intervals to get things done. They are far less likely to succumb to Parkinson’s Law, the adage that work expands to fill the time available to complete it, than colleagues who spend long hours in the office looking busy. Where flexibility stigma has been left unchecked, however, leaders will ‘see’ only the work that happens in front of them. This tends to bias an organisation's perception of the ‘right’ mix of employees to apply to problem solving.
Leaders who surround themselves with people they already know are good at something will get a foregone conclusion. As Winston Churchill said, “if two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary.” To avoid a short-circuit in decision making, leaders need to ensure that things that would never occur to them are brought to their attention. This happens when ideas from any corner and rank of the organisation are able to collide through untrammelled information flow up and down the workplace. The idea therefore that you might define ‘good’ and ‘bad’ workers by how much time they spend in the office has consequences for innovation and productivity.
The office remains the reason people worked 9 to 5, sitting alongside the same colleagues and enduring often long commutes. An entrenched workplace culture has reinforced bias towards outdated professional norms, such as presenteeism, and helped to keep flexible working practices largely informal or ad-hoc despite the well documented benefits.
But according to the ONS’ most recent report, firms with good management practices adapted well to ‘novel’ practices like home working during the pandemic. Leaders’ ability to establish mutual trust, where output is prioritised over ‘observed effort,’ will determine the long-term cultural resilience of their companies. Corporate values need to be able to tether people to what matters to them while enabling them to operate in a practical way that matters to the organisation. The ability to successfully retain, manage and attract key talent post-pandemic will be crucial, particularly as new entrants demand flexibility in role.
Flexible working as a leveller
Flexible workstyles have the potential to level out the imbalances that have frustrated many, including parents returning to work and workers with disabilities. Giving employees agency over how best to manage their work has many benefits including the recognition that there are different ways to deliver different activities.
This is why we support interventions like the ABI’s #MakingFlexibleWork campaign, which comes at a time when organisations are grappling with their hybrid working strategy. Offering broad flexible working options, alongside an effective hybrid working strategy, is a powerful combination. The campaign aims to change perceptions of and attitudes towards flexible working – in all its forms – within the insurance and long-term savings sector. At DuoMe for example we have developed a dynamic planner for hybrid teams as well as a job share site where individuals can securely connect to an ideal partner and, from there, apply for jobs together.
Equipping teams to share and retrieve ongoing work from different locations at different times and to document their work and progress in a uniform way can equalise visibility but also opportunity. Individuals who used to occupy more peripheral positions in a physical team network, can level up their visibility in a hybrid setting. This could have a positive reinforcement effect on broader inclusion. A hybrid work method that unites the workforce in principle could disincentivise certain individuals from taking more credit than they are due, while enabling managers to assess achievements more equitably.
As people come to the office less, managing flexible working well means enabling workers to optimise where to do different types of work - home, office or 3rd space - and equipping them to work effectively at different times and across different locations. Being able to keep up with others’ location as priorities change is essential to make sure planning collaboration days is straightforward.
Businesses being explicit about the changing purpose of the office, about it being a space to connect and collaborate, is a positive development. Workplace experience matters more than ever in a hybrid world. If we can protect focus time during remote hours - the days we are not in an office - to get work done, the office space is much more than people booking available hot desks. The future of workspace planning will be based on companies orchestrating the right mix of people in the same space, at the right times, led by what they need to work on.
Rethinking the optimal way to get things done
Organisations that make it clear they plan to remain oriented around presenteeism are sticking to yesterday’s logic and will fall behind the biggest global organisational change in living history. While businesses in heavily regulated sectors have valid concerns about the activities of certain employees, the shift to flexible working, as people demand hybrid patterns in particular, is an opportunity to address entrenched beliefs and structural barriers in a deliberate move away from ad hoc flexible working practices.
Instead, a transparent and intentional hybrid model would set the stage for delivering work in various ways that accommodate the demands of clients, colleagues and personal relationships. Just as the megatrends in automation and digital manufacturing continue to reshape our lives, how we work cannot be exempt from the need to adapt to evolving priorities.