Once considered the domain of unambitious part-timers, flexible working practices are increasingly being viewed by forward thinking CEOs as a way to retain and attract top talent, encourage a focus on results rather than presenteeism (turning up to work when sick), and create collaborative cultures that have a positive impact on a business’s bottom line.
Flexible working has been appearing in the news with increasing regularity over the last few weeks and months. The news that civil servants normally based in Whitehall are being asked to work from home this summer caused public outcry. Then came the controversy around the Beecroft report, which had sections removed before publication that recommended withdrawing proposals to extend flexible working rights. More recently London mayor Boris Johnson also claimed that home working is a ‘skiver’s paradise’ and ‘an excuse for general malingering’.
These stories demonstrate that there is still some uncertainty on the part of the general public about the genuine business benefits of flexible working. There is still a perception among many people that flexible or home working is an opportunity for staff to ‘skive’, do the gardening, or watch daytime TV, when they should be working.
In our experience the reverse is true. In time, more and more businesses and public sector organisations will adopt these new ways of working and it will ultimately become the norm. Far from encouraging ‘slacking’, businesses that introduce these new ways of working have proven that they respond more rapidly to the challenges and opportunities that the market throws at them.
Our own experiences have shown that flexible working can transform an organisation’s fortunes. A few years ago, Vodafone was subject to fierce competition in its home market. Our products and services were competitive and innovative but our corporate culture was too rigid and inflexible for the fast-paced UK market. So the company took the brave decision to do away with its outdated and obsolete ‘command and control’ hierarchy and instead we decided to embrace a better way of working.
The transition was neither comfortable nor easy. It meant trusting that everyone was getting on with their jobs. It also required buy-in from staff at all levels and across all divisions. Ultimately though, it worked. Now the dedicated desks are gone, the executive offices are no more and employees are able to work from wherever they need to, whenever they need to.
We also combined communication tools, the highly efficient use of building space, and flexible working hours and locations. We did away with presenteeism in favour of increased workplace flexibility.
These changes have made us more nimble in more ways than one. For instance, it used to take us weeks to change a price plan. Now we do it in days. Furthermore, contrary to widely held beliefs about flexible working, our work-rate and productivity have increased, not dropped.
There are other real benefits in implementing these new ways of working. Vodafone has been able to significantly cut operating costs, make better use of its physical infrastructure and reduce its carbon footprint. In 2010/11 alone the company saved 24,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions.
Furthermore, generations ‘Y’ and ‘Z’ are now entering the workforce. These younger employees see flexible working as a must have rather than a perk, and view mobile technology as a natural part of their daily lives. They can also often feel disenfranchised by traditional organisational structures and expect to join a community rather than a rigid hierarchy. With that in mind, it is clear that businesses and public sector employees must adapt and change to these new ways of working if they are to attract and retain the best talent.
While fear of the change is understandable, it is imperative that decision-makers in the public and private sectors across the UK stop clinging to the old ways of working because in the long run businesses only stand to gain.