Companies that are prepared to take an individualised approach to flexible working could reap the benefits from sustaining a motivated workforce, in the face of an expected rocky year ahead for many sectors of the economy. Dr Jason Devereux explains more.
The economic recession has increased the need for businesses to be more flexible in organisational structure and workforce deployment while trying to improve growth. In particular, notes a report by the CBI, flexible working has gained a lot of interest among companies looking to minimise redundancies.1 To meet rapidly changing demand in uncertain economic conditions, and offer flexible pay and remuneration packages, organisations need to react quickly by redeploying staff across different activities and restructure staff levels accordingly.
When is work flexible?
Flexible working can include part-time working, job-sharing, flexible working hours, remote home-working (teleworking), and work-week compression. According to the Department for Work and Pensions, part-time working is the most common arrangement, followed by flexi-time working.2 Currently, flexi-time, home-working and time off in lieu seem to be the preferred options among employees, although the trend is changing.
The negative impact of an inflexible approach to work arrangements can be inferred from a Chartered Management Institute survey of British managers in 2009, which identified worrying problems among employees concerning morale and engagement.3 These problems are likely to be due, in part, to sudden changes in job design, such as increases in workload and working hours, and less job control and social support from colleagues and managers.
By a similar measure, a literature review of research studies between 1998 and 2007, published last year, revealed that a mix of high job demands, low control and low social support can increase the risk of damage to psychological well-being.4
For large employers, the use of flexible working patterns has not only become an important aspect of increasing organisational flexibility but may also be a useful strategy for reducing the effects of low morale and engagement associated with changes in workload, job control and social support.
Organisations need to be aware that it is important to embrace individuals’ needs and provide greater autonomy in their decision-making processes. This may be radical thinking for some organisations but it is a strategy that businesses should test.
For organisations, there are both extrinsic and intrinsic benefits associated with flexible working. Extrinsic benefits include:
- improving employee well-being by lowering stress, promoting recovery and providing better work-life balance;
- boosting morale, loyalty and discretionary effort by giving people more choice and control over their hours;
- aligning work time with individual peak-productivity time affected by social jet lag, which is caused by differences between people’s internal biological clocks and the official clock time that society follows. Sufferers of social jet lag may experience problems with their judgement and overall health; and
- improving the quantity and quality of work.
Developing a policy
Flexible working should be seen as an important strategy for retaining talented employees who have family or other commitments within normal working hours.
But for flexible-work arrangements to be effective, a strategy must be in place to develop, implement and evaluate a policy as needs change within a business.
Worker and manager participation is needed in developing the policy in the first place. It is important for teams to understand how individuals work together in the organisation and how they interact with customers. This will help devise the right number of flexible-working arrangements for specific work teams.
A one-size-fits-all policy is unlikely to be successful, so a more individual approach is needed to complement individual needs, as well as the needs of the managed team.
It is imperative that the implementation process is well-organised to ensure the continued success of such a policy. Specifically, methods of policy control must be established; the means of securing cooperation between individuals and groups need to be decided; the method of communication to make people aware of the policy should be firmly established; and the responsibilities of both the employer and its employees must be clearly stated.
According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, operational pressures, concerns about line managers’ ability to manage individuals working more flexibly, and customer-service requirements are major constraints on the successful introduction of flexible working.5 Consideration should therefore be given to how such barriers can be overcome.
Implementing the policy will require management training, and acceptance that flexible working is positive for the business. Training should focus on, among other things, how to cope with uncertainty, ambiguity, and constant change.
If the prevailing culture of the organisation is resistant to change, effort will need to be applied to transform it into a “why can’t it be done” culture. Good examples of flexible working already within the organisation need to be promoted, and senior managers should demonstrate their commitment to a flexible-working policy.
Implementation of the policy should be measured within teams so the lessons can be learned from experiences. For example:
- What aspects of flexible working helped benefit employees and/or managers?
- Were there any conflicts of interest?
- Was interaction with customers positively or negatively affected, etc.
- Employees on flexible-working arrangements should not be disadvantaged in relation to career progression through the organisation. Reward should be focused on achievement and not pattern of hours worked.
Health, well-being and productivity
For organisations that are downsizing their workforce but, at the same time, increasing the workload for their remaining staff, it is important to consider workforce engagement and health and well-being. Indeed, a recent workshop held at the University of Surrey and attended by large employers acknowledged workload and recovery issues as important and requiring better monitoring and intervention on their part.6
Flexible-working arrangements could act as a suitable intervention to promote worker recovery during the week and motivate employees to commit to a higher and more sustainable workload. Research indicates that worker recovery mainly occurs at weekends, which is not really conducive to optimal work performance. Indeed, mental fatigue, poor decision-making, and an inability to switch off from work can all increase physiological stress levels over the course of a working week. Failing to address this is detrimental to health and well-being in the long term.
Test and review
Organisations should implement flexible-working trials for a six-month period, at least, and take into account seasonal workload issues to determine the impact on employee morale and worker engagement, worker efficiency, sickness absence, job and life satisfaction, motivation, and ill-health reporting, particularly in relation to stress and musculoskeletal disorders.
A review of the policy implementation across the organisation should be undertaken to ascertain the suitability and effectiveness of the implementation process and to rectify any deficiencies. The advantages and disadvantages of flexible working across different work systems should also be identified, and the policy updated to ensure a better fit with organisational goals, if necessary.
An important question to answer as part of the review is whether employees with vital knowledge and skills are being retained for longer as a result of the policy intervention.
Flexible working in action
Flexible working is becoming more popular among employers. According to a CBI survey in 2009, more than two-thirds of employers who responded had increased the availability of flexible working, or intended to in the near future.1
Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, which employs 99,000 people in more than 100 countries, operates a flexible-working policy owing to the belief that it helps recruit and retain the best talent.
According to the company, for the last 18 years it has been on the ‘working-mother 100 best companies list’. Its presence there is based on its commitment to creating family-supporting initiatives, including various flexible-working arrangements, such as part-time work, flexi-time, teleworking and job-sharing.
To determine the benefits of flexible working for staff, the company analysed some of the arrangements it had in place. Nearly 40 per cent of its staff in the UK, for example, are working mothers who operate on a flexi-time schedule. Start times and finish times vary depending on child-care arrangements for the individual. During summer holidays, some employees work less to accommodate child care.
Part-time hours vary from 18 to 30 hours. Most managers work remotely and at home occasionally, depending on their role. Video and telephone conferencing is used extensively to reduce travel time and costs.
All flexible working is requested by the employee and approved, depending on the business case, by the relevant line manager, with input from human resources.
The company believes that flexible working has a huge impact on worker engagement and commitment, even if the arrangement is simply allowing staff to start one hour later, or leave an hour earlier to collect children from school. A standard number of work hours within a specified duration are normally agreed upon using flexi-time arrangements.
KPMG, a provider of professional services, recently introduced another form of flexible working – the compressed work week. The aim of the intervention was to minimise redundancies and enable the firm to retain talented staff.
Invitations to reduce the working week by a day, with that day unpaid, and/or take sabbatical leave of between four and 12 weeks at 30-per-cent of pay were made. About 85 per cent of staff accepted the invitation.
Another example is provided by BT Global Partners, which has allowed a four-day week for a senior manager working 10-hour days. Task prioritisation, self-discipline and delegation are important skills in such a situation. A key business benefit of this arrangement has been the creation of a group of seven experienced deputies, who take it in turn to run the business. Increased employee satisfaction in the division has been reported, as have higher profit margins.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the field in which it operates, mobile-telecommunications company Vodafone has focused on teleworking – a practice typically defined as working at a location away from the traditional place of work, full or part-time, and involving the use of mobile telecommunications.
Every employee uses a mobile handset networked to a virtual PBX (private branch exchange). All the phones are equipped with mini intranet, providing menus and all Vodafone contacts. Many staff use synchronised e-mails on laptops, as well as high-speed mobile data cards with their laptops to gain high-speed remote access to the company intranet, the Internet, e-mail and office applications. There are touchdown points in communal areas, such as cafes in Vodafone buildings, to allow workers and visitors to access information easily. Wireless local area networks have also been introduced to speed up communication.
The company believes that a mobile workforce helps support a more fluid organisational structure. Initially, it encountered some resistance from senior managers to the change but adaptation to the new technology and change in the physical environment occured quickly. Preparing staff for what to expect and offering training was crucial in overcoming the reluctance to change and fear of involvement.
Lessons for organisations thinking about a similar approach include using help desks to deal with inquiries concerning planned changes, and communicating the policy via the intranet. Champions in each team should also be selected to help facilitate the change.
As well as attracting talented individuals to the business, the company sees the benefits of a mobile workforce as greater productivity, better communication, and more creative thinking.
Flexible working offers an opportunity for organisations to protect their investment in talented employees and retain their services during economic recessions. It also offers a way of providing a better workload-recovery balance to ensure that the risks of low morale, disengagement, or burnout are reduced.
Companies should take an individual approach to flexible working where possible, so there is alignment between the needs of each individual employee and the needs of the work team. To maximise the potential benefits of flexible working, an all-encompassing strategy comprising a policy, planning, implementation, performance measurement, and review is required.
1 CBI (2009): Employment Trends 2009: work patterns in the recession, CBI
2 DWP (2009): Flexible working: working for families, working for business. A report by the Family Friendly Working Hours Taskforce – www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/family-friendly-task-force-report.pdf
3 Chartered Management Institute (2009): Economic Outlook: October 2009 – www.managers.org.uk/research-analysis/research/current-research/economic-outlook-october-2009
4 Hausser, J A et al (2010): ‘Ten Years on: A review of recent research on the Job-Demand-Control) (-Support) model and psychological well-being’, in Work and Stress, vol.24, issue 1, 2010, pp1-35
5 CIPD (2005): Flexible working: impact and implementation – an employer survey, CIPD Survey Report 2005 – www.cipd.co.uk/subjects/hrpract/flexibleworkingpractices/flexworksurvey.htm
See also: Cropley, M and Devereux, J (2010): ‘The recovery proposition’, in SHP, October 2010 – www.shponline.co.uk/features-content/full/worker-fatigue-the-recovery-proposition
Dr Jason Devereux is a consultant in organisational design and management issues focused on the human factors within work systems.
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