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Flexible Working - Communication is the Key to Success

posted 29 Nov 2013, 06:38 by Ines Wichert

It pays to enable employees to balance work with other commitments outside of work. Work-life balance plays a key role in employees’ level of engagement, the extent to which they are willing to go the extra mile for their employers. It also influences employees’ decisions to stay or leave their organisations. This has been shown in both academic and business research. And no longer is this only an issue for working mothers; it has become an increasingly important consideration for men and non-parents, too. 

In addition to personal arrangements at home, flexible schedules at work are the key ingredient to making work-life balance a reality. On 5th November, the London city network of the European Professional Women’s Network (EPWN) hosted a panel discussion in partnership with law firm Morrison Foerster on the topic of flexible working. The panel brought together a wide range of different perspectives on this topic which made for an insightful evening:

·         Ann Bevitt, employment lawyer and Partner at Morrison Foerster

·         Vicki O’Brien, Head of Customer Service at BA who has been working reduced hours for a number of years

·         Paul Churchill, responsible for Agile Working at Lloyds Bank

·         Dr. Leah Tomkins, Senior Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour at the University of Middlesex

The Law

An employee has the right to request a change to the hours worked, when these hours are worked and where they are worked, provided they are caring for a live-in dependent or have children under the age of 17. However, employers can refuse a request on business grounds. Examples of flexible working arrangements are working from home, working reduced or compressed hours, or starting and finishing a work day on a flexible basis, e.g. starting late and finishing late or staring early and finishing early.

Making it work

Flexible working can bring clear benefits to both employers and employees. The panel, however, also highlighted a number of challenges that need to be addressed if flexible working is to deliver these benefits; simply offering flexible work arrangements is no guarantee for success.

The ideal worker and role models

Flexible working clashes with the ideal worker concept which proposes that we should always be present at work, be available to work long hours and be completely dedicated to our work. This doesn’t sit well with working from home or working reduced hours. If this outdated yet still widespread norm is left unchallenged, employees who work flexibly may engage in counterproductive behaviours, such as regularly working late into the night in order to compensate for working reduced hours. Employers have a key role to play in clearly communicating the acceptability, even the desirability, of flexible working if it contributes to retaining valued employees. Senior executives who work flexibly, or who have worked flexibly in the past, can help send powerful messages about how flexible working can be integral to both personal and organisational success. Such role models can help to re-define the ideal worker concept but have to include men, women, parents and non-parents. Working flexibly will only become a success if it is perceived to be an acceptable choice for all employees and not only mothers.  

Trust

Working from home requires trust, particularly so on the side of the manager who cannot physically see an employee working at his or her desk. Employees may also experience uncertainty and feel the need to continually prove that they are productive which can result in unnecessary email updates and over-communication. Managing a virtual team requires strong performance management skills and clear target setting. More than this though, it requires an honest and open conversation about how much daily or weekly ‘evidence’ a manager requires about what an employee is working on and how much guidance an employee requires to feel supported. Regular communication helps to build trust and can make working from home more effective.

Being promoted while working flexibly

As we have already seen, work-life balance is a key factor for retaining talented employees. Another driver of retention is career progression. Unfortunately, flexible working and career progression don’t always mesh well. You can have one or the other but rarely both. To help change this, managers need to challenge themselves about whether their ‘ideal’ candidate really has to be in the office every day. Furthermore, simply asking an employee what he or she requires to ‘make it work’ (e.g. a leadership development course, a promotion) allows for an open discussion that can help to uncover flexible solutions. Training and coaching helps to equip managers to have such conversations, which in turn increase the likelihood of these conversations taking place. It is encouraging to see that there are now more women (and men) who are managing to keep their careers progressing while working flexibly. The Power Part Time list celebrates some of these achievements.

The golden cage

Flexible work arrangements are highly valued and may make employees more reluctant to leave an organisation for the fear of not being able to work flexibly at a new organisation. As a result, flexible working can create a golden cage. Despite recent media stories of companies such as Yahoo asking employees to work from the office again rather than from home, flexible working is now well-established enough to make it a legitimate request when discussing a role with a potential new employer. Employees can help an employer consider a request for flexible working by clearly outlining how the proposed arrangements will work in practice and how they will help deliver results for the organisation; if presented like a business case, an employer can consider requests for flexible working like any other business proposal.

As mentioned at the start of this blog, it pays to enable employees to balance work with other commitments outside of work. And clear, open and ongoing communication helps to make flexible working a success for both employers and employees.

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