Work done, not time at your desk, is key in flexible environment
Former London Mayor Boris Johnson summed up the suspicions of many employers when in 2012 he described working from home: "We all know that is basically sitting wondering whether to go down to the fridge to hack off that bit of cheese before checking your emails again."
Although more and more employers and their staff are offering workers flexible arrangements, some managers still find it difficult to deal with full-time staff who are not in the office during traditional business hours.
Flexible working can mean flexibility of role, schedule, place or leave - working from home, or fitting work around other life commitments.
It can be temporary, regular or formal. Under law, anyone can ask for it: All employers have a legal obligation under the Employment Relations Amendment Act to provide a process for any employee to request a flexible working arrangement. They are not legally obliged to make it happen, though.
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As the labour market tightens and businesses have to compete for top talent, it is becoming more of a pressing consideration for many - and a way to stand out as an attractive employer.
But New Zealand business leadership organisation Global Women said it made commercial sense for businesses to consider flexible options.
As well as benefiting staff, flexible work could result in more productivity as workers became more engaged, less absenteeism and a drop in turnover.
Global Women's Champions of Change have launched a toolkit for employers who are beginning the process of offering flexibility.
"Adapting to a flexible framework is quite a fundamental shift in the way we approach the work environment," said Global Women chief executive Miranda Burdon.
Clients had seen the benefits, too, he said. When the Kaikoura earthquake hit and much of Wellington was closed for business, PwC had been able to continue work "without skipping a beat" with staff used to logging in from home, he said. "It does make your business more resilient."
Director Mark Verbiest also led the work. He said many businesses incorrectly expected flexible working to have a negative impact on thier clients. But once they tried it, many found that their clients themselves operated in a flexible way and were open to the relationship changing.
The toolkit had taken almost a year to produce, he said, and was designed to be thought-provoking for businesses wondering where to start. "There's no one size fits all. It would be disastrous if it was just viewed as the way that people - especially women - work part-time. This is way broader than that."
Elizabeth George, from the University of Auckland Business School's graduate school of management, said business leaders had to accept that, with flexible working, they could not manage the process - only the outcome. "You can't micromanage in this environment, it's just not possible. If you can't specify either what the output looks like or what the process is you can't have flexibility. How do you manage it?"
It would usually mean workers taking on a lot more responsibility for their work, she said. "You can't wait for someone to come along and tell you what to do and how. It needs planning and conversation, sharing what is expected."
Businesses considering making a shift to flexible workplaces should have a trial run, she said, and try it with a few jobs before expanding it to the whole workforce.
She said even things such as laboratory work was now being done by virtual simulation, and surgery was being conducted remotely. "Technology has made these significant differences. It has big social implications linked to choice and economic dependency."
Alison Andrew, chief executive of Transpower, said there was no one set way that companies could expect flexibility to work for them.
She said business leaders who had to be able to see their staff to determine whether they were performing were operating in an out-of-date model, anyway.
Flexibility should drive diversity, she said, "Gender diversity, ethnic diversity, an ageing workforce - there's different responsibilities, caring for kids or caring for parents... how do you make it work? If you're willing to allow [staff] to be productive while they juggle other things it makes a hell of a difference in how they feel about work," she said.
"If you want to get and retain top talent, have good productivity, be responsible, agile and more able to focus on the challenges as a business, flexible working helps us do that."
George agreed flexible working was helpful to boost women's participation in the workforce.
"Whether we like it or not, women are socially expected to take care of more of the family responsibilities. That doesn't always fit within organisational routines. If an organisation wants more women they have got to figure out ways to work around their other responsibilities."
Some grandparents would have responsibilities caring for their grandchildren, she said. "To get more older people in, it may be something they have to think about."
But George said flexibility was becoming another division between low-skill workers and higher-skilled. The flexibility of place that technology had started to offer those who worked in an office was not available to those who were in low-skilled jobs that required them to turn up at a certain place and time. "There's a divide that happens there."
As for Boris Johnson? Even he seemed to come round to the idea – he reportedly went on to make working from home a regular fixture of the week.
A clear vision
Develop a clear and inspiring vision of workplace flexibility at your organisation – what aspects of flexible working you'll bring on board and how this will help your business to thrive.
A flexibility strategy needs to have the support of your executive leadership team. They should role-model flexible working for the rest of the team.
Establishing goals and actions
Establish a set of strategic goals and a timeline of actions to lead you to your vision. Identify which resources will be needed to achieve your flexibility goals.
Creating a plan
Use your established goals and actions to create a plan - be prepared to address any issues that have been identified.
Testing and evaluating
Evaluate the success of your approach by constantly testing and assessing against your goals and vision. Each organisation will have different business drivers for introducing flexible working and you might not be able to offer all types of flexibility to start with. Don't be afraid to evolve your strategy as you learn more.
- Ensure there is a culture of trust and respect
- Establish clear expectations and responsibilities
- Acknowledge change is difficult
- Focus on "what" people produce rather than "how" they work
- Ensure flexible work arrangements meet the needs of the customer, business and individual
- Use technology
How to fix common problems
- If you're worried about losing your sense of a "team", take the time to consciously develop team spirit, look for ways to communicate as a group
- Involve the whole team as you determine how flexibility will work when you design rosters, meetings and training
- Be open and transparent and speak up if something isn't working
- Use all available technology when people are in highly collaborative roles
- If you're worried that people make do less, that's a performance issue – not a problem with flexible working as a concept
What to measure
Change in business practice: The number of people using flexible working practices, how many roles could be flexible and how many people using each type of flexible work
Benefits for employees: Stress levels, work/life balance, amount of exercise, relationship with colleagues, engagement levels
Organisational results: Productivity, staff absenteeism, staff turnover, office space overheads
* Registrations for Global Women's 1 Day for Change summit on 19 September are now open, and places are filling fast. Find out more, view the speakers and buy your ticket at http://globalwomen.org.nz/1dfcnz