Dolly Parton sang to us about the pitfalls of working regular hours as long ago as 1980 yet it took until almost two years ago for the UK to introduce legislation around flexible working.  Since 30 June 2014, all employees have had the statutory right to request flexible working after 26 weeks of employment service.  Yet here we are, two years down the road, and the UK is still among the lowest ranking European countries for flexible working.  So why is this?  In an age of video conferencing – let’s face it, you can pretty much hold an effective meeting on your phone these days – and instantaneous electronic communication, why are UK employees still not viewing flexibility as a way of working?

Cultural Attitudes

There seems to be an attitude amongst many business leaders that flexible working does not work.  Many managers believe that it is up to individual employees to balance their work and family responsibilities.  Concerning, in my opinion, is that many managers are still suspicious that people who work remotely, part-time or different hours aren’t working at all or not at full capacity.  They don’t believe that work can be achieved outside of the confines of the workplace or outside of core hours.  These negative views often mean that employees who would like to request flexible working fail to do so because they feel that they are condemning themselves to less successful careers if they do.  Sadly, in 2016, there are still employers who believe that flexible working is only ever needed by women with children even though all employees can request it regardless of gender or family specifics.  I come across this attitude time and again when speaking with clients and it is so disappointing.  There is research which suggests that flexible workers actually hold the record for being the most productive in the time given.  Getting across the message that giving workers (whether they are parents or not) some leeway in the way they work can pay dividends for performance is a crucial message to get across to resistant bosses.

There are still many managers who have never been trained how to manage properly and who therefore struggle to manage remote workers.  True, it can be harder to keep tabs on who is switching off lights and computers when they’re not in use if staff are working at differing times and team discussions may be missed by those working remotely.  However, with proper management, these need not be problematic issues.   It’s vital that roles and responsibilities are clear when managing flexible workers and infrequent face-to-face communication makes it even more important to keep documents and plans up-to-date and accessible to all members of staff.  Again, this is easy in the digital age.

We also still have a tradition of judging performance through “presentism.”  Such views are underpinned by assumptions about performance – that people are only working when you can see them and have high levels of control over their scheduling.  This is a cultural issue and must be challenged if the UK is ever to embrace flexible working as a highly workable arrangement.

What options are there?

Flexibility in the workplace in most cases means a variation from the traditional 9-5 or 5.30.  The most commonly offered flexible arrangements are part-time working and variations of set working hours.  In contrast, however, many employees would much prefer flexitime and/or the ability to work from home.  The main options are variable hours, restructured hours (compressed working week) or reduced hours.  Flexibility in terms of hours and place of work can work far better for both employers and employees than the traditional fall-back position of standard part-time working with reduced hours. 

What next?

Countless research studies have shown a direct correlation between flexible working and happiness.  Offering your employees a better work-life balance can also help you attract and retain talented staff.  Many employees would state that the ability to work flexibly is the same, if not more, important to them than the salary on offer for the role.

My hope is that as new people come into organisations with different views and that as a generation of flexible workers move gradually into senior roles, attitudes around flexible working will change and new working patterns will become more generally accepted in business.  Also, as technology continues to develop, it is likely that the need to be physically in the same place as your colleagues or clients/customers will disappear altogether.  Perhaps we also need virtual pubs for that beer at the end of the week?!

This blog was originally posted here