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Flexible Working

Why employers need to understand and embrace the true meaning of flexible working

Hybrid working shouldn’t be mistaken for fully true flexible working, argue HR and diversity and inclusion experts. Companies that can make the distinction are set to be the winners in the impending “great resignation”.

By MaryLou Costa

Hybrid working is dominating the post-pandemic conversation, but most employers are missing the point: that it’s just one form of flexible working. One which doesn’t necessarily equate to overall true flexibility.

That’s according to HR and diversity and inclusion experts. They fear it will be too easy for company leaders to revert to the comfort zone of the status quo. Instead they should invest in genuine flexible working consultations and frameworks – and in some cases, change their culture.

“Everything still remains so uncertain. That getting ‘back to normal’ and going back to the office, even for two days a week, creates that certainty company leaders are looking for right now,” explains Nicola Pease, founder of flexible work consultancy Ignite and a former HR leader at Jaguar Land Rover.

“But I define flexible working as being about not just the where, but the when and the how. That’s what’s often being missed from the narrative around hybrid work. If everybody in every company in the world went to hybrid working, it would still not solve the issues around flexible working. It would still not allow everybody to work in a way that best suits them. Because it’s not all about location.”

Paving the way for ‘asynchronous working’

The ‘when’ and the ‘how’ are what companies like file storage platform Dropbox have aimed to redefine for its 2,500 strong workforce, after announcing late last year its shift to becoming a remote-first employer. 

It has adopted a new structure in which four set hours are carved out daily for team meetings. Individuals decide what hours they work the rest of the day. These hours, it has decreed, should be set aside for ‘asynchronous working’, or work that people can concentrate on themselves, using collaborative tech tools to gather any necessary feedback from colleagues.

For all the materials it has released outlining its new work policy, though, Dropbox’s HR leaders have acknowledged a crucial point – that it will be a work in progress that constantly evolves.

Accepting the evolving nature of flexible work policies

That confidence to work in a ‘trial and error’ way – and “be flexible about being flexible” – is what diversity and inclusion specialist at Green Eyes Consulting, Di Keller, believes will set employers apart as true champions of flexible working.

“We’ve created some principles, but are trying to hand it over to teams to define what their own framework is. This is around their own when, where, and how, but also the business needs and the needs of the team, because we have quite diverse teams,” says Keller, who is also the strategic equality, diversity and inclusion lead for Karbon Homes.

“But policies shouldn’t be hard and fast because we’re in unknown territory. Whatever any organisation puts in needs to remain continually under review. Otherwise, people will just flop back into the office, nine to five without even thinking about it. Because that’s a comfy pair of slippers we don’t have to work too hard on. And the mentality often is, everybody used to work like that – so it must have been all right.”

Empowering managers to manage true flexible working

Another challenge businesses are facing with genuine flexible working is educating managers to manage flexible teams, adds Pease.

“Some of the concerns I’m hearing from line managers is more pressure, on making decisions on how their team should work, and how they are going to deliver whenever and wherever their teams are working,” she relays.

“Truly flexible organisations will be working on supporting their managers in the practical implementation – as well as trusting employees to come up with the right decisions that are going to work.”

Flexible working as a diversity and inclusion driver

Both Pease and Keller agree it’s not an easy process. So why keep pushing for a holistic flexible working approach, if the corporate appetite to roll it out is often not there?

Because genuine flexible working is one of the biggest organic drivers of diversity, equality and inclusion, argues Cheney Hamilton, founder and managing director of The Find Your Flex Group. The website’s user data reveals a broad spectrum of people looking for flexible working. The data also proves that it’s no longer just the desire of working mothers, as it was previously deemed.

“Looking at our site user data, we reached gender parity last November. Then from January to March, given the decline in high street retail, we saw a massive influx in women over 45,” Hamilton reveals.

“This was mainly white women, then from April, we saw more women from the BAME community. We also have strong representation from the LBTQI+ and disabled community.”

Leveling out gender inequality, though, is one of Keller’s main motivations for advocating flexible working.

“For men who want a more hands-on experience as a father, flexible working opens a huge door for them that was previously iron bolted,” she notes. 

“And for some organisations, it’s shown them innovation beyond anything they could have imagined, that they can really go and build on now. So why would you not pursue flexible working?”

Coming out on top in the ‘great resignation’

Such positive personal experiences of true flexible working will now shape what people are looking for from an employer, believes Pease. This shouldn’t be taken lightly, she warns, if predictions of an impending ‘great resignation’ become reality. Indeed, Microsoft research shows 40% of people want to change jobs this year.

“I’ve done three different surveys now with three different companies. 80 to 90% of people are saying they want to work more flexibly, and have more choice about where – and when – they work,” Pease shares.

“If a company says they can’t offer flexibility, I don’t think that 80% of people are going to go, ‘okay, we’ll just carry on as we were before’. They’re going to see if they can find that somewhere else. Organisations that don’t get on board with flexible working will find they lose their top talent to ones that are.”

Needing to re-identify true flexible working post-pandemic

Keller tells us; don’t mistake flexible working for the way many people have worked during the pandemic.

“There is definitely a need to re-identify flexible working. Because the enforced hideous way we’ve had to work over the last 15 months is what people see as flexible working. And there is flexibility within that, but it’s definitely not flexible working,” she clarifies.

“Flexible working is being able to work how I want, where I want, and to a degree, when I want. Providing it meets my business needs, my work needs and my personal needs.”

MaryLou Costa is a freelance writer fascinated by the future of work, especially changes that advance women’s careers. Her work has featured in The Guardian, The Observer, Business Insider, Stylist, Raconteur, Sifted, Digiday, UNLEASH, Marketing Week and others, plus she has appeared on Times Radio, BBC and Sky News.