What they don't tell you about flexible working

Despite the benefits for busy event professionals, the realities of ditching the office don't always live up to the hype.

Hannah is two months back into her job after maternity leave and working four days a week, but it’s not going as well as she’d hoped. 

"I feel stuck in my career and feel pressure to squeeze work into four days, often work longer than my contracted hours. I also feel overlooked at work because I’m not there on the fifth day." 

Hannah was sharing her experience of flexible working with attendees at Management Today's Inspiring Women in Business conference and it’s clear she’s not alone.  

Another woman (who didn’t share her name) stands up and reveals that while she works from home one day a week she still struggles to balance the pressures of work with spending time with her children, which means she often ends up working over the weekend to catch up. 

According to the CIPD’s 2019 Working Lives report, 54% of employees say they have worked flexibly - which can be anything from working fewer hours to working remotely from home - at some point within the last year, and flexible working has been touted by employer organisations, trade unions and campaign groups as a solution to workplace issues like the gender pay gap and employee burnout.

In 2014 the government introduced legislation to give all employees the right to request flexible working if they have worked for the same employer for 26 weeks or more. 

There’s no doubt that there can be huge wellbeing and productivity benefits to letting employees work flexibly, but, as Hannah’s experience shows, it has its downsides. 

It’s those problems that have led some companies to ditch it altogether. In 2013, then Yahoo! boss Marissa Mayer banned executives working remotely, claiming among other reasons that "speed and quality" were being sacrificed by working from home. 

Likewise in 2017, IT giant IBM, an early adopter of flexible working practices since the 1980s, abandoned the policy when it pursued a co-location strategy partly influenced by a desire to improve innovation by bringing teams closer together. 

Christine Armstrong explores what she calls the untold side of flexible working in her book The Mother of All Jobs. While she agrees that it’s a great idea in principle, she says it rarely works in practice because it doesn’t fit with traditional working practices that are still the norm at many companies.  

"Anybody who’s in a professional job where they’re electronically tethered usually ends up being paid less to be in contact for the same amount of time - and being seen as less committed," says Armstrong. 

This echoes the experience of some of the women speaking at Management Today’s event. Despite working fewer days a week due to caring and parental responsibilities, they’re often still expected to approve documents overnight or log into conference calls outside their regular hours. 

Armstrong says this is particularly acute for working parents, especially working mothers, because of prevailing cultural perceptions that it’s easier for the mother to care for children.

Emma Stewart, CEO of flexible working consultancy Timewise, is more optimistic. Flexible working can work for everyone, she says. The problem is that companies often fail properly to think about how it will be implemented or prepare to do it. 

She highlights a trend she calls "flex washing", whereby companies offer roles as flexible without thinking about how the role might change or how it might affect the wider team and clients. 

"There’s a big difference between saying we’re open to you working in an agile way anywhere with your laptop and saying we believe this job can be done four days a week."

Another problem is that too many companies fail to review how the scheme is working, or not, which means they are sometimes unaware that an employee might be having problems. 

"Flexible working needs to be consistently reviewed in the same way that any other type of performance or role is reviewed," says Stewart.

Making flexible work

In companies that get it right, managers are proactive (not reactive) when it comes to having conversations with employees about working flexibly, regularly review how it’s working out and assess how performance metrics are measured or whether they might need to be adjusted as a role changes. 

"You have to really think through what flexible working means for you as an organisation and how you approach it. It’s about changing operational practice," adds Stewart. 

It could be the case that in order for a role to be condensed into four days, responsibilities need to be redistributed around the team, important meeting times scheduled to fit everyone’s work pattern or projects reassessed for their suitability.

Part of introducing flexible working might also be accepting that it’s not always possible to offer every role as fully flexible. In this case Stewart says that businesses should be more open with job candidates about the type of flexibility they’re able to offer from the outset. 

Culture also plays a big part in flexible working being successful. Behaviour is shaped by those at the top, so senior leaders should play an important role by practising flexible working themselves and by "leaving loudly", talking about their experiences both good and bad with the rest of their colleagues. 

Ensuring that there are multiple points of contact for anyone employee is essential for getting around the tech challenges of remote working, says Armstrong - something that’s much easier in a small business employing 10 people than a global multinational employing 20,000. 

"It’s about ensuring that the business continues to operate when somebody is not there,'' says Armstrong, adding that job shares can also be a practical solution, especially for more senior roles. 

It’s not simple, there’s no one-size fits all approach, but bosses shouldn’t be put off from introducing or reassessing their flexible working policy. It’s win-win if you get it right, says Stewart, because employers more likely to attract the kind of candidate that actually wants to work for them. "This is about facilitating choice"

Either way, it’s likely that bosses will have to get used to more legislation. In 2019, a working group of employee organisations and government parties was founded to increase the uptake of flexible working in the UK; the Conservatives meanwhile announced proposals that could potentially make flexible working a default for employers (subject to consultation).

This article was first published by Management Today.

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