Opinion: During Flexible Working Week, Jacqueline de Rojas calls for organisations to address the cultural barriers blocking the British workforce from reaching its potential.
Nearly two years ago, every worker in the UK was allowed the legal right to request flexible working from their bosses, unlocking all of us from the traditional fixed place of work and the same routine each day.
Since then, many studies have championed the positive benefits of adopting mobile working, citing clear improvements to work / life balance, productivity and overall health and wellbeing. There are also numerous macro benefits to a more flexible British workforce, including reduced numbers of commuters, a decentralised economy with a lesser focus on large cities and even a significant boost to the UK’s GDP and economic output.
When polled shortly after the legislation was announced, 94% of UK knowledge workers said they would work from home for about two days per week if they could. It seemed we were finally ready to embrace a new era of work style.
Hit fast-forward to 2016, however, and while significant progress has been made, there are still a few large hurdles we need to overcome before we can class Britain as a global flexible working capital.
The ‘tipping point’ for flexible working
Benchmarking how far we have come, new research – commissioned by Citrix and carried out by Lancaster University’s The Work Foundation – has found that from next year working away from the office will become more common than the traditional 9am – 5pm working day. Most interestingly, the paper also predicts that by 2020, over 70% of organisations will adopt mobile working.
This is all very encouraging, especially given that flexible working is so important to me personally. However, there are still a number of – largely cultural – challenges preventing the widespread uptake of working from anywhere. For example, more than a third (37%) of managers believe flexible working will result in them working longer hours, one in five (22%) say it makes them feel disconnected from their team and 28% felt it could block them from overseeing the work of others. A quarter (24%) of managers also admitted that all work is still currently carried out on their company premises.
Knocking down the cultural barriers
So how do we address these issues to foster a culture where mobile working is both accepted by employees and successful for the organisation? Well, to me, flexible working is most profitable when the benefits to the organisation and the individual are aligned – and defined as a formal agreement.
The Work Foundation study also suggests the most successful forms of mobile working requires three key commitments:
1. Leadership: Chief Executives and board members should set an example with their own approach to mobile working and wellbeing. In doing so, they should set out to lead cultural change in which employees are measured on outputs rather than visibility – building trust across the organisation.
2. A new approach to people policies: More than half of workers believe the adoption of mobile working would require changes to terms and conditions and performance management. These policies should be transparent and visibly agreed with staff, with focus on outputs and outcomes rather than ‘presenteeism’ and hours worked.
3. Careful planning: The introduction of new technology and ways of working takes time, careful planning and implementation. It is critical to ensure that individuals are comfortable with their technology and recognise individual preferences.
I agree with all of these; without flexible working policies businesses are simply set to lose out. But it’s vital that employers fully embrace flexible working and lead by example – it’s something that they themselves must understand, believe in and commit to for it to become an intrinsic part of a company’s DNA. You can’t simply go through the motions. It’s also important that the right technology is in place, providing seamless, fast and secure access to their work network. After all, there’s little gain from having a mobile workforce if they don’t have the tools to achieve the same level of performance as when they’re in the office.
Finally, creating a more balanced and productive workforce requires a change of expectations from employers – taking the focus away from physical presence in an office and instead placing the emphasis on delivery, productivity and trust. We are on the cusp of real, positive change – not only improving the lives of employees but enhancing business performance as well. A tipping point is one thing, maintaining the momentum is quite another – we must stay focused on creating business environments that allow everyone to achieve their potential.