Nick Martindale asks how being more flexible in your approach can help prepare your organisation for the future
Working in a highly competitive market, professional services firm Deloitte knows it needs to fight to attract and retain talent. Yet its own studies found it was losing significant numbers of people – mainly women – around the mid-career point, and that much of this was down to a perceived lack of flexibility and long-hours culture.
This was the main driver behind its decision to launch an “agile” working programme; so named because it wanted to stress that the new flexible arrangements were open to everyone, rather than just women. There are, says Emma Codd, managing partner for talent, a number of aspects to this, including the ability for all staff to request more flexible work patterns and a less formal regime where it is acceptable for people to work from home or a local office rather than having to commute into major cities.
“With our London office we had people travelling in from some distance every day, when they could spend 20 minutes getting to a local office and have some of their life back,” she says. “We’ve also introduced something called ‘time out’, which is the ability for people to apply to take one month unpaid leave at a time that suits the business.” This could be for any reason, she says, and has proved particularly popular with parents who struggle to cope with the long school summer holidays.
So what’s stopping you?
A recent CIPD report into flexible working, though, found a number of potential barriers to its implementation, including operational pressures, customer service requirements and the ability of line managers to effectively manage flexible workers. But Dianah Worman, public policy adviser for diversity at the CIPD, believes organisations need to make changes now, so they can figure out what works for them before they are forced to do so in order to compete, particularly in the wake of new legislation opening up the right to request flexible working to anyone, which will come into effect at the end of June.
“If you don’t face up to this you’re going to have an overwhelming agenda to get your head around,” she warns. “It’s better to go for it in a way that is more proactive so you get some expertise under your belt.” There are a number of cases where flexible working could be beneficial for businesses, she adds, particularly when dealing with a global client base in different time zones.
Andrew Manning, director of client growth and solutions at Cielo, identifies three main benefits to flexible working: accessing a greater pool of potential employees, improving engagement and motivation, and helping to retain staff who may otherwise move on after a short time. “Making the transition to a flexible environment now will future-proof a company’s talent strategies,” he says. “Those businesses unable to adapt may soon fall behind the curve and perhaps risk losing out in the war for talent.”
This is particularly likely to occur with younger workers but is also an issue for older people who may be coming out of or postponing retirement, says Hayley Fisher, people director at Thomsons Online Benefits. “Our recent Global Benefits Watch 2014 research found that, over the coming year, 24% of organisations will place a focus on hiring younger employees while 23% will look to re-hire those already in retirement,” she says. “This means employers now conceivably have to accommodate four generations. Flexible working will be essential in enabling employers to cater for the variance in their workforces.”
Get the right skills in place
Yet there are also warnings for employers looking to go down this route. Ensuring managers are equipped to cope with flexibility is essential, warns Michael Jenkins, chief executive of talent firm Roffey Park. “Not only do managers need the skills to manage people who are not working 9 to 5pm, they also need to trust in the concept of flexible working and enable their staff to work flexibly without putting up barriers to success,” he warns. “Managers of remote workers need to find new ways of connecting in a relational as well as a task way. Micro-management is simply not possible, so they need to focus away from monitoring activity to the delivery of outcomes.”
Yvonne Sell, director at Hay Group and co-author of Leadership 2030, stresses the need to consider how teams have to interact and meet in person, as well as ensuring effective decision-making and information-sharing. “How critical is face-to-face contact in creating an environment that binds people together and provides additional meaning to their work?” she asks. “What are the home-working expectations of the people you need to attract and retain? How important is it that collaboration is done in person? Without answering these questions, a remote, flexible workforce will be all too easily switched off.”