Flexible working can provide significant benefits for both employers and employees – but business owners need to recognise the advantages.
Businesses spend thousands – sometimes millions of pounds – providing employees with the tools and facilities needed to maximise productivity within the workplace. Companies make significant investments in areas such as technology, training and staff retention, but sometimes the cheaper alternatives can prove the most effective. Simply by changing the culture of work within their organisation, employers have the ability to make a real difference to individual employees. Make their working life more comfortable and enjoyable and businesses can boost morale, encouraging staff to give their all on a daily basis.
By embracing flexible working practices – which incorporate concepts such as mobile and home working – employers hand a certain degree of control back to their workers. Rather than being forced to adapt to the rigid, well-defined model of employment, which fails to cater for their own idiosyncrasies, employees have the ability to customise their own working day. Parents, carers, and those with other responsibilities outside work – or even hobbies and interests – can use flexible working to achieve a greater balance between their career and family life. If they need to work non-standard hours, split shifts or take certain days off, the framework exists to make this possible. Similarly, if employees are able to work more effectively from home, their employer can benefit from giving them the leeway to do so.
Seeking flexibility in the workplace
Anyone can ask their employer for flexible work arrangements, but at present, relatively few workers have a statutory right to work non-standard hours. Only employees who have or expect to have parental responsibility of a child aged under 17, or a disabled child under 18 who receives Disability Living Allowance, and have worked for their company for 26 weeks has a legal right to request flexible working. And even then, employers have the opportunity to reject requests if there are good business reasons for doing so. Essentially, employees have the right to request flexible working, but not the right to receive it. But should this matter?
Employers themselves should see the value in offering flexibility to their staff members – and not just those with caring responsibilities. Shirley Borrett, development director at the Telework Association, recently said "enlightened organisations" recognise that practices such as home working can have a positive impact on the whole workforce. "We have this notion that carers and parents deserve flexible working - but what about all those people that don't have children? They still deserve a life," Ms Borrett added. "If it's not going to be detrimental to the team or the organisation, why wouldn't you offer it to everybody?"
Changing attitudes towards flexible working
Traditionally, many employers have appeared somewhat reluctant to be flexible, since delegating a degree of control to the workforce could be seen as a dilution of authority. How can employees be expected to focus if they are not under the managerial microscope, they would ask. In days gone by, this was a common fear among business owners and team leaders. However, widespread social and economic changes mean the benefits of flexible working now far outweigh any concerns harboured by employers.
With the decline of primary and secondary industry in the UK, it is far less important for employees to have a physical presence in the workplace. The broadband revolution, which has delivered cloud computing and online collaboration to the masses, means that employees can work equally effectively from remote locations. Those who rely upon IT tools to carry out their employment duties can do exactly the same job from home as they would in the office, without compromise. They can avoid the commute, reduce costs and potentially manage stress more effectively working in their own home, while companies can benefit from reduced office crowding and overheads, improved morale levels and lower staff attrition.
While flexible working may traditionally have been seen as a byword for slacking and loss of productivity, this could not be further from the truth. By changing the culture of the business, and judging employees of the work they get through, rather than the work they are seen to be doing, managers can easily overcome the challenge of having their team spread across multiple locations. A group of home or mobile workers, all of whom are motivated to work and happy to contribute, will surely prove more productive than a team of tired, travel-weary clock-watchers in the office. Employers seem to be latching on to this chain of thought.
Meeting the challenge of greater competition
Businesses which embrace flexible working can quickly reap the benefits of a more agile, fluid workforce. And in an increasingly competitive business environment, this is a major asset for any organisation. Modern technology solutions allow employees to work from any location, but from a customers' perspective, the location of the person answering their phone call or email is irrelevant. What consumers want is instant, real-time customer service, as and when they require it – and commonly out of normal working hours. If a service provider operates a rigid 9-5 working day, this forces consumers to work within similar constraints. Should they need to establish contact, the consumer must do so at a time which suits the company, rather than themselves.
Customers far prefer being able to make enquiries, or seek solutions to the problems they face, in their own time – typically on evenings and weekends. And by embracing flexible working, businesses can ensure they have staff in the office, store or workshop – physical or virtual – for the majority of the time. They can do so without forcing employees to work unsociable shifts, as for some staff members, it may be more suitable to work the unpopular evenings and weekends that nobody else wants. Particularly if they are based in their home - equipped with VoIP, instant messaging and other collaboration tools – rather than the office, employees may be far more receptive to working earlier, later or at the weekend.
Providing a 24/7 service is becoming more and more important for businesses of all sizes – if they do not do so, one of their direct rivals is likely to. Flexible working can help employers meet the dual challenge of being readily available to meet consumers' needs, while managing their own workforce. Keeping employees happy in their job helps retain expertise, reduces the need to spend on recruitment and training, and keeps operations ticking over. If employees actively want to work non-standard hours, in a customised environment which helps maximise motivation, business leaders have a vested interest in agreeing to such requests.
Hybrid organisations – those which combine the three elements of people, workplace and technology in equal measure – are undoubtedly best-placed to thrive in an uncertain, yet competitive business environment. Additional value can be gained by a company in each of these areas, if businesses are willing to think outside the box and embrace smarter working practices. Technological development has very much opened the door for flexible working – it makes concessions to employees wishing to manage their work-life balance, without affecting their accountability to their employer. Workers are managed on actual output, and if they are able to work more effectively by shaping their own working day, then everyone benefits.
As a new generation of employees - one that has grown up with ready access to consumer technology - moves into the world of work, the case for adopting flexible working becomes even greater. Young people want to use the IT tools they are familiar with to improve the way they work, and businesses should think twice about standing in their way. Rather, employers should be actively thinking about adapting their business models, infrastructure and culture to maximise the potential of new technology, and new working patterns. This can help motivate new starters, respond to changing customer demands and counter emerging risks to ongoing operations. Without doubt, if companies are willing to adapt the way they function, they stand a far greater chance of surviving and thriving in an ever-changing business world.