A lesson in expanding the reach of flexible working
Petra Wilton, the Director of Policy and Research at the Chartered Management Institute, argues the case for taking a less traditional approach in the workplace.
What wouldn’t any leader in the public sector do right now to improve the morale of their staff, increase their department’s productivity and ensure they keep hold of the stars in their workforce?
A new report this week from the Recruitment and Employment Confederation’s Flexible Work Commission – of which CMI is pleased to be a part – presented some interesting solutions to these problems in the form of adopting less traditional workplace structures.
The report found that, by adopting flexible working practices, organisations could reduce absenteeism, improve morale and productivity, and better attract and retain top talent. While many people generally assume flexible working applies in the most part to practices which help people with young families work around those responsibilities, the Commission focused on a much wider definition which encompassed all forms of work flexibility for all different types of workers. This included compressed hours, encouraging home working and utilising temporary and part-time contracts.
One of the key recommendations coming out of it was that the profile of flexible working practices beyond family-friendly initiatives needs to be raised significantly to prompt an increase in the use of the full range of options on offer to organisations. While this applies to the private sector too, it’s in the public sector in particular that scope was identified to dramatically expand the use of work flexibility, especially the trend of work ‘projectisation’ that has been put to use in certain parts of the private sector to great effect.
We know from research we published recently that public sector managers are much more likely to have access to flexible working options than their private sector counterparts (81 per cent compared to 62 per cent), and they see this as a highly valued benefit. So why aren’t flexible options being put to better use in the public sector? The Government should surely be leading by example – setting an example to the private sector by ensuring flexible options are widely embedded throughout the public sector and efficiently used with successes being highlighted to the private sector. With the right to request flexible working set to be extended to all employees in 2013, time is of the essence for this.
Yet, when Top Employers for Working Families announced the best places to work flexibly recently, the top 10 contained just two public sector bodies – congratulations to Southdown Housing Association and The National Assembly for Wales. In contrast, six of the best scoring companies were from the currently much-maligned financial sector. It might not be hugely popular with the UK public at the moment but their employees are clearly of a different opinion.
In reality, in the wake of job and budget cuts, and in part in reaction to media exposés regarding public sector expenditure on sometimes costly consultants, it’s understandable that public sector leaders might feel pressure to cut the use of temporary workers, freelancers and temporary managers. The report, however, calls for decision makers in the sector to embrace these forms of work flexibility citing huge efficiency savings and increased access to in-demand skills as the advantages for government-funded projects.
The general perception of flexible working initiatives is often that they are complicated to implement, police and get the best out of, and this isn’t limited to the public sector. BT released figures from a survey of those working in the professional services sector last week which showed that 90 per cent thought introducing flexible working could cut costs and increase productivity, but management resistance was stopping this happening.
When the reasons for this resistance were examined, almost half (49 per cent) reported that senior managers do not understand the business case for flexibility and a similar number (45 per cent) stated that the organisational culture stops flexible options being utilised. For example, the belief amongst 90 per cent of lawyers, accountants and management consultants was that being seen working in the office is essential if you are to progress in your career.
This echoes the Flexible Work Commission report findings. These showed that ‘presenteeism’, which all too often rears its ugly head in the form of staff turning up to work when sick, is a significant hurdle when it comes to flexible working. Workers are concerned not just with missing out on promotions but also training and development opportunities.
The Commission’s report confirms that, unfortunately, managers and leaders are the stumbling block when it comes to implementation, particularly in larger organisations. The research suggests that they play a pivotal role in unlocking the potential of employing a diverse range of work flexibility options. It's a real shame that, at present, too many managers are still unprepared to contemplate offering more flexibility, not only to meet individual employees' needs, but also to get the most out of their teams and ultimately to perform better.
The difficulty is that, at the moment, many managers and leaders lack the skills and knowledge needed – with too few equipped with professional qualifications and chartered status – that help managers to be successful in leading change. To succeed, the drive for flexibility must be led from the top. Better managers and leaders spell better performance and are, ultimately, the key to recovery. Employers must ensure that managers are educated about flexible working and can confidently lead effective flexible teams, as well as engage employees in helping design the types of flexibility options that work for both the individual and the organisation.
It is true that implementing flexible working can be a challenge at times but under the circumstances and in the face of mounting evidence of its benefits can you afford not to?