Employers have ‘flexperimented’ and want to stay flexible in the future, says a new report from FlexAppeal.
The report, which presents in-depth findings from 32 companies and 1,420 employers that used flexible working throughout the Covid-19 crisis, presents a compelling argument for flexible working being sustainable for businesses beyond the parameters of a pandemic.
“Flexible working might be compressed hours, homeworking, flexitime, smarter shift patterns or any other variation,” explain Anna Whitehouse and Matt Farquharson, founders of FlexAppeal, the organisation behind the report. “Hundreds of studies have shown flex improves access to work, reduces stress and improves our physical and mental health. And it’s good for employers, because it raises productivity, improves loyalty and can cut costs.”
When the pandemic struck, millions of people were forced to work from home and organisations had to find new ways to cope – quickly, efficiently and in some ways better than ever before. So, what can businesses learn from this period? Below, we share the report’s recommendations for flexibility and how to make flex work for your organisation for decades to come.
Take advantage of the opportunity presented by the pandemic
“Making behavioural change happen during ‘business as usual’ isn’t easy,” notes the report, suggesting that the pandemic was actually a helpful catalyst for businesses keen to adopt flexible working practices – initiating new systems and encouraging new behaviours. For companies that have had to make changes to the way they do things, now is the moment to question long-established norms. Ask yourself: what elements of the ‘new world’ can we keep? Which ‘old world’ working practices should never return?
Trust is crucial
One of the biggest obstacles to implementing flexible working is the relinquishing of control – by leaders, managers and workers. “If we want people to be more open to flex, first we need to empathise – what are they afraid is going to happen once the reins are loosened?” says the report. It suggests that business leaders want to feel in control of what the organisation is, where it’s going, safeguarding its traditions and what it stands for – and worry this can’t be done so easily under a flexible system. Leaders should examine these feelings and interrogate whether they are still fair. “When flex doesn’t threaten our sense of control, we’re more enthusiastic about it,” says the report.
This year has already seen a lot of change, and your organisation may feel that the last thing needed is further disruption. When it comes to implementing new flexible working practices, the report recommends managing stakeholder expectations and giving yourself some “wiggle room” by using the language of piloting, trialling and experimentation. “Start small, with a single team or individual, listen to feedback, make changes, and try again,” it advises.
Communicate clearly and often
Be open and honest about your plans – and acknowledge that you might not yet know all the answers. Listening is even more important. Don’t be afraid to ask management and employees: “Where’s the rub in your day?” or “What one small thing would improve your working life?” “Giving all colleagues a chance to work out what good flexible working looks like gives them a stake in the process,” says the report, and – as a result – it is more likely to ‘stick’.
“A flexible approach still needs boundaries,” notes the report. Do you need people to work core hours? Are there certain service levels that must be met? Should people communicate in specific ways? “Tell them. Make expectations crystal clear.”
Reframe the language
‘Flexible’ is just one word to describe the new working style you want to achieve – others include ‘agile’ or ‘hybrid’. For some people, ‘flexible’ feels like a massive shift, so adjust the terminology to suit your organisation and its priorities. “Flex is a means to an end,” concludes the report. “It doesn’t matter what we call it.”
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