Work done, not time at your desk, is key in flexible environment

Alison Andrew says flexibility improves staff loyalty.
LOREN DOUGAN/STUFF

Alison Andrew says flexibility improves staff loyalty.

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.

Miranda Burdon says the traditional office of 20 years ago is being replaced by a different way of working.
LAWRENCE SMITH/STUFF

Miranda Burdon says the traditional office of 20 years ago is being replaced by a different way of working.

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.

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"How fundamental that shift is to create a truly flexible working environment shouldn't be understated. It's not a tweak, it's a change."
She said over time it should lead to more participation in the workforce, particularly as New Zealand became more ethnically diverse, with more older people in the workforce and more caring responsibilities for men and women. Technology made flexibility much simpler, she said, and younger generations who expected to be able to use it were quickly filing up business ranks.
 "Flexibility can encourage diversity at all levels."
Many businesses had already started to introduce informal aspects of flexibility, she said, and it was just a matter of introducing it in a more strategic way.
"There's a great deal of informal flexibility already in play in New Zealand as we've all worked to achieve greater work/life balance across a myriad of situations. To formally embed this takes time and a concerted effort but the end game is companies operating with a more flexible approach encouraging a flexible mindset and greater agility. Allowing some flexibility opens up a far greater proportion of the talent pool to the workforce creating economic and social benefits for New Zealand."
ASK OUR PANEL: Stuff is chairing a panel session at the 1 Day for Change Event, where questions will be put to key speakers. Do you have any questions about diversity in business, or the changing workforce? Do you want high-level feedback on a particular topic or issue? Email susan.edmunds@fairfaxmedia.co.nz
Global Women's toolkit was designed to help other employers learn from the experiences of those who had already tackled the question of how to implement flexibility, she said.
"As a small nation, the more we can collaborate to be agile and accept all the opportunities and talent that's out there, the better."
She said Monday-to-Friday 9am to 5pm work hours were being replaced by flexible arrangements, fixed skillsets and knowledge were being replaced by adaptive learning environments, hierarchies were flattening, tightly controlled information had become shared content and command and control-based management was being transcended by inspiring and engaging leadership.
Mark Averill, chief executive of PwC, was one of the champions who led the development of the toolkit.
He said the mindshift required did not come easily to all managers. "It's a critical business issue to deal with - it's the way the world is going.
"One of the critical challenges is all around mindset.  Flexible working doesn't mean part-time, it's just a different way of doing things, a different way of operating. And it's not just for parents. It's empowering people to enable them to operate at their best in a way that works for them but also works for our business."
At PwC, all staff have flexible options if they want them. 
Managing staff who might be at home or working elsewhere during traditional business hours required the company's management to focus more on their "outputs", what they were producing, than their "inputs" - or the time they spent at a desk to do so, he said.
"You've just got to trust your people," Averill said."That's what's at the core of flexible working. 
"The concept is empowering people to choose how and when they want to work."
PwC had moved from a model where everyone was in offices with fixed allocated desks to an environment with much greater reliance on technology to create the workspace. "People can be just as effective at home as they are at work... it creates a more inclusive environment and a more diverse environment. It helps people to perform at their best."
Averill said there had been no negative effects of its shift to flexibility. "We've been looking at this over the past 12 to 18 months and we're still on the learning curve and journey but nothing earth-shatteringly negative has happened. Nothing has stopped. Our productivity has continued as ever."
 
 

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.

Five steps to a flexible working strategy

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.

Fostering leadership

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.

Consider:

  • Communicate
  • 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

 - Stuff

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