What should true flexible working really encompass?

April 8, 2021

When I first kicked off my professional career in HR nearly 30 years ago, the concept of flexible working hardly featured at all in the prevailing corporate vocabulary. Against a backdrop of high unemployment, working flexibly was the very last thing on people’s minds.

Instead, simply having a job anywhere was the priority. For me, this meant moving from my home in Scotland to London. Jumping to the present, the topic of flexible working is now very much mainstream. Employers are increasingly focussed on trying to interpret what flexible working can and should mean with varying degrees of success. Social media is awash with discussions around the relative merits of the different approaches that employers have adopted noting that for some it is a triumph of spin over substance.

This explosion of interest in flexible working of course stems from a tight labour market and, more fundamentally, a growing appetite for change in the way we structure our work. This appetite is shaped by a number of influencers which include technological advances that provide greater scope for remote working, as well as social shifts in society relating to the changing nature of the family unit.

Let’s be clear about one thing first – when we talk about flexible working, by and large we are not talking about the ability to vary working hours either temporarily or on a permanent basis. Flexible working is really much more about the way in which you work. True flexible working should afford an individual the ability to balance their work commitments with their home life/personal commitments by looking at work patterns in a different way. One thing that has not changed much since I started my career is the dependence on a rigidly structured 9am to 5pm (or similar) working day. The very reason why commuting has become such a nightmare for so many is because almost everyone follows a very traditional work pattern and there are now far more of us than there were 30 years ago. Whilst this pattern may well align with the requirements of many businesses, employers need to be very sure that there is a good reason why you want your employees to work on this basis with the consequential challenges you are creating.

Although some may not wish to take up the opportunity to work remotely on a permanent basis and see this as isolating, there may well be scope to empower your employees to work where they wish on different days of the week so that they are not unnecessarily pressured by the work/life interface. Particularly for those in roles where the focus is on deliverables and there is no absolute need to be available all the time during routine office hours, flexibility can be introduced. Allowing employees to structure their hours so they avoid needless commutes or can spend more time with their children can actually boost employee satisfaction because you are considering them first and foremost as individuals rather than employees who are simply giving you their labour in return for a salary. This is not some radical utopian logic. On the contrary, it is common sense. True flexible working along the lines we have described will help your employees to be more productive because they are doing the things in their lives that they see as important to them at the times when they need to do them. You still expect them to work their contractual hours but you are not being prescriptive around how this is done.

Here at Blue Pencil, we have tried to keep our approach simple and tangible. Although we don’t use these exact words, in effect our approach is:

We trust you and you know what we need. Where and how you do it is up to you!

This approach does not suit all roles but in a client facing environment such as ours where we work across time zones, trying to micro-manage people simply doesn’t work. If a colleague has a sick dog or a sick child, they should be able to deal with that without feeling guilty about working remotely or at different times of the day if the need dictates. As professionals, we should be responsible for managing our own time and be judged by our outputs.

As an employer, we look to develop the skills our employees have. We are however very upfront in recognising that for most of us, our work is a means to an end. We want our employees to take regular breaks and to give time to their families. We want our employees to be able to schedule in things that are important to them because we know this will positively impact on their lives and therefore have a knock on benefit at work too.

True flexibility is therefore what every sound relationship should be based on – trust and individual empowerment with a coming together over collective goals. The 1980s now seem a long way off to me as we adjust to a different social context around work. Employers want their employees to be all “singing and dancing” but too often fail to see that their needs, aspirations and goals are important and can be balanced with work by viewing them first and foremost as individuals. As Dolly Parton so aptly once said:

Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life

Chris Lipscomb is a Director and the COO of Blue Pencil and the former HR Director of Al Tamimi, the largest regional law firm in the Middle East.