Recent research mapping the various combinations of flexible work found more than 300 possible ways in which jobs could be organised flexibly. This includes job shares, compressed hours, term-time working, flexi-hours and tapered working. There is considerable scope to draw upon this host of working practices.
First and foremost, managers need training in how to manage flexible work. My own research found that line managers are the single biggest block on flexible work uptake. And even where flexible work is supported, too often it is assumed that managers know the unknowable and can just run with new working practices.
But without any investment being made in managers, flexible working arrangements are set up to fail. Alternatively, the buck gets passed onto the flexible worker to make a success of a new arrangement, giving him or her one more task for their workload, and one with a high penalty attached to failure – a stressful experience in itself.
Realistically, achieving this buy-in will also need some nudging, particularly for smaller businesses and sectors where there has been less flexible work. Giving managers access to success stories and practical guidance, backed up by lots of leadership and peer support, is vital.
Managers and employees need to come together to assemble flexible working arrangements that work for everyone, with a real understanding of what is at stake and what is possible. A part of this is the need to get flexible about flexibility – recognising that circumstances change and that work arrangements may need to be tweaked or even reversed over time to ensure that they remain fit for purpose.
Flexible work has been used as a management tool to achieve savings by imposing remote or zero-hours contracts on workforces, with little input from those called on to do their jobs differently. So it’s necessary to give people space to make suggestions and give feedback about flexible work. And it is also about making use of a range of flexible working arrangements.
Flexible work demands a shift away from seeing productivity in terms of being present for fixed working hours. Companies (and managers) need to devise better measures of output: has a project been completed within schedule, did the team work well together, is the report of a high quality? These are much more effective yardsticks of success than whether staff clock in at 9am each day.
Making flexible work available at the point of hire will widen the talent pools available to employers, as people who already work flexibly will be more likely to apply for positions where they won’t lose a valued part of their contract. Employers who ignore this demand will be poorly prepared in the war for talent.
The evidence base for the benefits of well-managed flexible working arrangements is getting more and more compelling. It offers increased retention and productivity, and drops in absenteeism. And it’s not only employers who stand to make business gains from getting good at managing flexible work, employees with a good work-life balance are more motivated and content. Plus, as the latest gender pay gap figures show that older workers are seeing the greatest disparities, flexible work is a key tool in creating more age-friendly and equitable workplaces.
On a societal level, by organising work more thoughtfully we can make inroads into tackling carbon emissions as our car use becomes more efficient. We could see reduced demands on health and social care systems as workforce stress levels fall, and balancing care and work demands become more manageable. But we will only achieve this through good management, a fresh approach to job design, and enthusiasm from all involved.
Jane Parry is a post-doctoral researcher at Solent University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.