Flexible working is not an easy concept to sell to the board of any organisation. For many, the idea brings with it misconceived notions relating to its supposed negative impact on productivity, accountability and employee engagement.
But I don’t think any board can realistically continue to ignore flexible working and its potential benefits.
Whether you’re a CEO, a CFO or a Chief HR Officer, you know that your workforce is on the cusp of a major demographic change. Generation Z is entering the workforce.
And Generation Z’s arrival into the world of work is likely to bring with it significant changes to the way you manage your organisation and cater for the needs and expectations of your employees.
In truth, you also know that you have to make your company attractive to Generation Z so that you can recruit and retain the most talented within this new group.
Moreover, you probably accept that in order to be attractive to this new demographic (a demographic which as I have said makes totally new demands on employers), you will have to adopt and implement some form of ‘flexible working’.
However, it’s the prospect of flexible working that, for many reasons, fills many boards with dread.
Firstly, let’s deal with the many preconceptions that attach themselves to flexible working, few of which have any real validity. Flexible working, for instance, does not mean the entire workforce can sit at home doing nothing all day. Yet many boards are mistakenly worried that this is what it will mean. Often, this will be the first thought that prompts hatches to be battened down!
Secondly, adopting flexible working means letting go of ‘the old way’ of managing the organisation, rather like letting go of fledgling children. Sometimes painful, but always vital – vital for survival.
Nevertheless, it is the very act of ‘letting go’ of many of the traditional elements of office life in favour of adopting workstyle innovation that can help to deliver greater productivity, employee engagement, and help to drive growth. Workstyle innovation can be the catalyst that enables employees to collaborate, manage and share information more effectively. So, what actually needs to be ‘let go’ in order for the organisation to adapt to what is, after all, an inevitable change?
Management by Presenteeism
The days when seeing the back of someone’s head and the screen glowing beyond it are long gone – or they should be.
For one thing, this is a reflection of box-ticking, unproductive management. Perhaps even more importantly, presenteeism may well make Millennials and Generation Z run away in their droves from a potential employer. For these generations of workers, presenteeism is just not an acceptable management style, and they will seek out organisations that measure them on output and input: on what they do – by quality and quantity – rather than when or where they do it.
In order to succeed with these outcome-focused workers, managers have to negotiate targets with their team members. And to do that in a meaningful manner, they have to be more intimately involved in what their respective team members do, and how they do it.
In addition, managers have to be involved in developing a whole new set of metrics to measure this more evolved way of working.
And once this way of working is the accepted practice, the ‘where’ and ‘when’ they meet their personal targets starts to become less and less relevant, unless there is an absolute business requirement for an employee to be in a particular place at a particular time.
My own work space
Before flexible working can be implemented, digitisation has to happen. Within the context of ‘my own work space’, this means an end to working from a fixed location, or a fixed point within a location.
There are many different ways of doing this. Some organisations go for a completely unallocated workplace environment, where employees enter their building – or one of their buildings – and sit and work at any desk.
Others have opted for a largely ‘zonal’ system, where members of loosely demarcated departments tend to sit together. The advantage of this approach is that team-work is more facilitated, and other employees know where to go within a location, should they have a query.
But it goes beyond this. Once we have true flexibility, why would we need to have individual offices?
While hosting a client visit to one of our offices to see the results of our own workplace transformation programme, I pointed out that not a single person including our CEO or the rest of the board had their own cellular office.
“Oh,” said one of the visitors. ”I don’t think our board would go along with that.”
”Why not?” I asked. There was a long pause, and he looked me in the eye for some time before replying: ”That’s a very good question.”
When we first began our own transformation programme, I know that not everyone on our board was that comfortable with this element. Two years down the line, I also know that not one of them would turn back the clock.
One of the consequences of digitisation is that, in addition to enabling flexibility, employees become accustomed to finding digital documents far more quickly than their old paper counterparts, and they get used to processing information without paper. Walk through our HQ in Northampton, and you will see very little paper on any of the 450 desks therein. Use of paper has dropped significantly.
We’re not totally paperless and probably never will be. But our employees and our processes are not as reliant on paper as they were before we embarked on our transformation programme.
Factors such as fixed desking, fixed telephony, hard-wired computers can make any sort of change not just disruptive to continuity of business, but it can also make it costly. And because change can generate so much cost, the decision-making process is likely to become proportionately more extended. In my view, organisations have to be dynamic to survive. This means freedom to expand and contract, to acquire and dispose with the minimum of disruption and costs.
Flexible working leads to the ultimate corporate agility in the office – it enhances the ability to move or accommodate departments efficiently. It also enhances the ability to physically set up project groups, and accommodate them without all the traditional costs and disruptions that they tend to generate.
The bigger picture
Our employees, our customers, our commercial partners and the wider community in which we all live and work expect us to manage our organisations effectively and efficiently, and to focus on delivering responsible and sustainable growth. These outcomes should form the goals of a workstyle innovation strategy. And flexible working should form an integral part of any such strategy.