It is always a matter of curiosity to me that we are so wedded to the idea that the appropriate number of hours work in a week is 37.5 or perhaps 40. After all, this is an entirely fabricated construct, though I assume rooted in the belief in the early 20th century that people were entitled to 8 hours sleep, 8 hours work and 8 hours for their family – a fair and reasonable split.
Since then of course technology has changed immeasurably and work has globalised, which means that the boundary between work time and personal time has, for many, become blurred. Indeed, the distinction between the workplace (not at home) and the home (not at work), has vanished for most office jobs. Likewise, there has between great change in ‘traditional’ gender roles, with most women now employed outside the home and many more men with active roles in parenting and housekeeping.
What is flexible working?
Flexible working usually refers to three variations on the standard ‘40 hours at the workplace’ default:
- A work week that is less than 40 hours or part time.
- A variation to the packaging of hours, perhaps changed start or finish times or long days at sometimes of the year and shorter ones at others. This has been much in the news with the Finns adopting a model of longer working days but for only 4 days a week. Worklogic Director, Jodie Fox commented on an Australian company embracing this model on Seven News recently.
- A variation on work location, most often some work performed from home or from an alternative work location.
It is also possible to combine all three of these variations.
Interestingly, employers have been doing this without thinking and possibly without realising it, at senior levels for a long time.
Worklogic has worked in a fully flexible manner for a decade.
Most of our staff work less than 40 hours a week on average and many flex their work patterns around school holidays or other carer responsibilities. All work from a mix of home, office and client sites and self-determine this, week by week, depending on what is going on at home, and at work.
The team works cooperatively to ensure that we can manage unplanned challenges as they arise, whether that be illness or family drama, or a peak in work demand from clients. All this is done without impacting service to our clients or the quality of outputs. Indeed, we believe that the service and quality is greatly enhanced by the flexible way in which we operate, which promotes happy and long serving employees.
In my last job, the CEO also double hatted as the regional director for a business area as well as sitting on various Boards. In effect he did each of the two core roles only on a part time basis, and he worked from a number of countries and a plethora of offices to make it happen. I have no doubt that had we proposed a part time CEO or a part time regional business director, the idea would have been immediately rejected, but that is effectively what was occurring. The fact that the individual was employed by us for the full 40 hours made it less challenging for the organisation to contemplate.
Benefits of flexibility
So what are the advantages of providing a more flexible work environment?
Where staff are able to balance priorities in a less stressful manner, there is more energy left for mental work tasks. There is also more time available when two to three hours a day are not spent commuting in packed carriages or on choked roads. In some situation, there can also be an advantage for customers when staff have the freedom to flex to suit their requirements.
In my observation at least, the level of appreciation staff feel for being able to manage their own work outputs in the way that best suits both their own and the job requirements is immeasurable, and most work extremely hard to ‘pay back’ the trust placed in them.
Control is an important feature of lowering stress and improving overall mental health. Self-management of schedule and location can contribute to employee feelings of autonomy.
4. Attraction and Retention
Remarkably, many organisations are still very poor in their attitude to flexibility. Employers who manage this well have a strong competitive edge in the recruitment market and access to a far wider pool of talent. They are also more likely to retain staff when they hit the inevitable speed bumps in life, whether that be carer demands or illness. The adoption of flexible work is likely to grow not diminish as the new generation of workers have different expectations to their grandparents.
5. Social responsibility
We all want to be part of a community where people are rounded individuals with strong family lives and active community engagement. Employers have a major role is shaping communities operate by how they manage the employment contract with their staff.
Likewise, we want our staff to be well connected to the outside world, the market and the customer base. We want them to have time to think widely, to read, to meet diverse people and bring back new ideas. This does not happen if they are chained to their work desk for every available productive hour. There are many ways to enable this type of flexibility. As an example, at Worklogic we offer all employees an additional day of paid volunteering leave in addition to their normal leave entitlements.
Making it work
What are some of the things to keep in mind in setting up flexible work arrangements with staff?
Flexibility of hours
1.Servicing the customer during the hours they expect to have service available.
This is often tackled by having core hours when all staff must be on duty and then non-core hours where a lower staff ratio is present. This can work beneficially for customers, if it enables the total period of availability to be extended. In some case, technology has already reduced the requirement for face-to-face contact at given times.
2. Production operations that must be fully manned at given times.
This limits options for flexibility, though job share can address required manning levels without everyone having to do the same shifts. Planning shifts with work groups and giving them some ability to influence this, can be very productive.
3. Perceptions of equity between staff.
I have heard the argument that if all employees cannot be offered flexible working options, then none should be. I think this is rather a spurious defence as there are many other differences between jobs and opportunities. However, it is important to have consistency and transparency in how applications are dealt with and how judgements are made. As always, make sure decisions are properly documented and there is oversight if you have a large number of individual decision makers.
4. Repurposing jobs to fit the time available.
Where employers agree to reduced total hours, then it is important to scale back the job outputs proportionately. This sounds obvious, but frequently there is no change to the PD and then dispute about what tasks have been dropped off.
Flexibility of location
5. Remote supervision- Measuring outcomes not presence.
A common fear for flexible working is that is employees are out of sight, they will not work. If this is a concern, then you should probably consider your recruitment processes!
In reality, because someone sitting at their desk, it does not necessarily mean they are working or indeed working productively. Supervisors really do need to be able to estimate reasonable work output, even for staff working in the workplace. As operations have become more regional, national and indeed global, many supervisors supervise staff who work in in the field or at different work sites to themselves, so they are already applying remote management techniques. These can as easily extend to home workers as they do global workers. It does not therefore matter whether employees can be seen or not. Communications agreements however are crucial to making remote working work.
A much more planned and structured approach is needed to ensure good communications with workers you do not routinely see, either for reasons of altered hours or because of remote working. We have all been in teams where some members miss key instructions because they missed an important meeting and no-one follows up. It is important that the ground rules for communication protocols are written into any agreement with flexible workers. What are the ‘checking in’ requirements? Do you need/expect to know where they are each day or not? Do you need to know what hours they are ‘at work’ each day or are you happy for them to self-manage the hours provided the work gets done and the customers serviced? Are there events that they need to attend at the workplace even if they are normally at home that day? Who is the decision maker on these issues?
It is important to review the work with regard to the technology and information it needs to function and then to ensure that there is clarity about how this will operate. There are also questions to address about who bears any additional costs for equipment or technology, if there any. In these days of portable computing, mobile phones, cloud storage etc these costs are materially less than was the case a decade ago and certainly remote information access is much less of an issue.
8. Home office safety and security.
If people are going to work regularly from home, then employers need to consider both ergonomic safety and proper security of information and assets, both in the home and especially moving between work locations. We have all blanched at the horror stories of busy executives leaving the portable drive in the airport lounge or dropping a file on the tram. As the employer, you also need to be certain that your data protection obligations have not been compromised and that you have stored on your own IT system records that belong to the business. This risk is material when staff leave employment and documents are stored on personal computers. This of course can happen even if staff are not working remotely.
9. Work and caring.
The employer will usually want to satisfy themselves that working from home is not done simultaneously with caring responsibilities, where the employees focus needs to be on the caring not the work. Working from home is still working. Caring at home is leave or non-work time. It is however possible to do these sequentially or in a mixed day, for example work from 10-3, care from 3-6, work from 6-9.
For all forms of flexibility:
If you have staff working in a way that offers less direct contact with supervision, then extra effort needs to be made in registering and assessing their performance. High visibility is known to be a big driver of positive assessment!
If you are putting in place a temporary arrangement or you are not sure how it is going to work, you may need to build in a clear review period and/or an agreed end date. It is important to be clear how the arrangement can be terminated, by whom and on what grounds.
One of the challenges is that the usual expectations of the employment contract run contrary to high trust flexible arrangements. They are usually quite prescriptive about when work is done and where. This prescription has been to protect both parties from unreasonable exploitation.
Any flexible arrangement will need to specify the number of hours work to be done in a given period, as this will usually be the basis of payment. It will usually need to specify the entitlement that each party has with regard to where work gets done, either the minimum number of days allowed to be worked from home or required to be worked from the office, or that the location is at the determination of the employee unless directed otherwise. It is important that the contract or variation includes or refers to the features that will make the process work (as listed above).
Flexible work is the new normal
In summary, we believe that flexible working will become the new normal, particularly as the crush of commuting grows in cities and technology eliminates the barriers to remote working. If you haven’t implemented flexible working at your workplace yet, we would encourage you to start on this journey which can offer significant benefits for all concerned.
About Kairen Harris
Kairen Harris specialises in strategic workplace advice, dispute resolution and policy development. She understands how and when external HR can best augment internal function. Her depth of experience, wise counsel and practical problem-solving make Kairen highly sought-after.