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Flex factor: employers still struggling with flexible working

Professor Edward Truch

Flex factor: a woman leaving the office

The RSA’s recent Flex Factor report has brought to light the fact that many organisations are missing out on the opportunities that flexible working offers them as well as their employees, says report co-author Edward Truch

An RSA Action and Research Centre survey of 2,800 employees and managers across all sectors in the UK identified a substantial gap between those organisations that have fully embraced flexible working and those that have not. The study finds that some 12% of employees have fully formalised flexible working arrangements whilst 23% have none at all.

It is a missed opportunity, as besides the benefits to individuals, the study also found considerable organisational benefits: a direct link between greater flexibility and enhanced productivity and innovation, with employees estimating they gain an average of 5 productive hours a week - equating to an overall productivity gain of up to 15%; the study estimates that the combination of average productivity gains and office space savings amount to around £5,000 per annum.

However, according to Julian Thompson, Director of Enterprise at the RSA and co-author of the report there is no 'one size fits all' approach, and there are costs to be considered such as the need for changes in operational policies, procedures and associated training. The main challenge for wider adoption seems to be the need for a better understanding of the broad range of flexible working arrangements and how these should be managed effectively to achieve an optimal mix that suits both individual employees and their organisations at the same time.

Fundamentals of flexible working

To make flexible working a standard practice - and avoid a situation where arrangements are just a casual 'perk' for a minority - managers will need to look at some fundamental organisational changes. Flexible working, for example, provides a basis for a renewed psychological contract. With the traditional elements (eg job for life, training, pension) of this implicit contract between employer and worker looking increasingly threadbare, providing flexible working in itself creates a new commitment and sense of solidarity in pursuing common goals on the basis of individual needs. In order for organisations to not merely adopt but optimise flexible working they need ways to cheaply and regularly self-assess and learn what their data tells them about their type and degree of flexibility. This will require good diagnostic and analytical tools to monitor variations in working practices and their impact on human performance.

In some cases managers will need to overcome inertia and conservatism and develop means to encourage experimentation in better ways of working. New forms of physical and technical infrastructure will be need to provide a variety of remote locations in which to work, 24/7 access to systems and resources, and the freedom to experiment with alternative ways to connect and collaborate with others - meaning more concerted individual, organisational, and national investment. Routine staff appraisals and performance assessments will need to be used more specifically for focusing on knowledge and skills and how they are used, exploring the potential for how flexible working arrangements can be used to enhance performance and satisfaction, and how this might also benefit the organisation.

Find good examples

The ideal way of introducing flexible working is through clear leadership and visible commitment from the top team. When this is not available, an alternative approach is for individual managers to identify cases of informal flexible working, for example, where people have voluntarily stayed on after normal working hours to complete an urgent project or deal with an emergency. Such examples can be used to make a convincing business case by demonstrating clearly visible benefits for the organisation.

Direct experience of flexible working seems to make people more favourably disposed towards such new ways of working - the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And what's needed is more sharing of evidence and experiences in order to help employers access the kinds of performance improvements and cost-savings which may be critical during the period of recovery in the UK economy. For example, an observatory on alternative working practices to showcase and share between interested parties successful practice in developing and sustaining better ways of working; an open-source public domain benchmarking database to support development of flexible working together with associated tools and techniques; and ultimately develop more of a national package of indicators of the costs/benefits of flexible working and other working practices that can be a real platform for long-term change and advantage for UK firms.

Professor Edward Truch is a professor at Lancaster University Management School and co-author of the RSA’s Flex Factor report.

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