For employers, one of the biggest shifts in employee behaviour in recent years has been the rise of flexible working.  In survey after survey, the ability to work remotely has been amongst the most popular employee benefits, with some polls showing as many as 70% of staff now work away from the office for at least a part of the week. However, this has also been one of the hardest shifts for businesses to manage.  Fears of falling productivity and loss of collaboration have given bosses many sleepless nights as they struggle to optimise their flexible working approach.

The challenge

The issue for many bosses has been two-fold.

One the one hand they fear that, removed from the control of the office environment, staff will lose focus and become distracted from their work by domestic tasks, the visiting boiler repairman or that delicious pack of digestives in the kitchen for example.

On the other, there is a more intangible loss from the natural synergy that occurs when staff work together in the same physical space.  The ability to fire ideas back and forth face-to-face, the serendipitous meeting by the watercooler or the team-building benefits of the impromptu after-work beers are all threatened by a dispersed workforce.

The opportunity

These challenges, however, are perhaps outweighed by the opportunities of flexible working.

The first consideration is less an opportunity and more a necessity.  Workers, particularly millennials, want and expect a flexible working environment and if you don’t provide it they will go elsewhere, playing havoc with recruitment and retention.  Any firm insisting on the 9.00-5.00, five days a week will soon find that their competitors have all the brightest stars on board whilst their best employees ebb away.

Secondly, there are genuine cost and productivity improvements to be gained from a successful flexible working strategy.  A 2018 Stanford study found that home workers were more productive and were more likely to stay with a company than their office-bound brethren.  Combined with the obvious potential for cost savings from smaller central offices the financial potential is clear.

Getting it right

If flexible working is beneficial and inevitable what, then, is the best way of making it happen?

It’s not simply a matter of saying to employees that they no longer need to be in the office.  A recent flexible working project by a large media agency group in the UK floundered when it became apparent that their offices were becoming deserted (particularly on a Friday) as staff over-enthusiastically embraced the offer.  This lead to a measurable decrease in productivity as well as creating bad visuals for visiting clients who had to avoid the tumbleweed on their way to a meeting with their agency.

The key is to recognise that flexible working isn’t just a chance to save a few pounds by losing some desks.  It’s a relatively fundamental cultural shift that requires a new approach to employee engagement and resourcing.  There are a broad range of considerations when putting in place a flexible working approach:

1. Understand the challenges first

As with any project, the first consideration should be to assess the challenges and opportunities for your business first.  As well as looking at employees’ preferences or expectations through staff surveys or review processes, you need to look at the particulars of your business.

What are the aspects of your office life that require people to be present; When is it important that you have a full office; What are the regular all-company/division events that require physical attendance?  With this understanding clear, a strategy can be built around the opportunities and constraints that exist in your specific operations.

2. Engage with staff

A flexible working policy that is imposed from above misses the point of the exercise from the very beginning.  Flexible working is about enabling employee autonomy and so dictating the terms of that autonomy makes no sense.  It should be viewed as not just an office re-arrangement but a cultural shift in the company’s way of working.

Staff should be brought on from the very beginning, helping them to not only explain what they want from the approach but also helping them to understand from the business’ point of view what the potential downsides are.  If staff recognise themselves the importance of maintaining a vibrant central office atmosphere for staff and clients then they are less likely to take advantage of flexibility to the detriment of the business. This is a great way of increasing staff motivation.

3. Give them the tools

Simply telling staff to take their laptops home and get on with it won’t work.  Unless staff have simple and seamless access to all of the tools and resources that they can use in the office you can’t expect them to maintain or increase their productivity.  A fundamental systems review to ensure that remote working is not just possible but seamless is essential before you send your staff into the blue.  As well as central infrastructure you also need to consider the tools that team members have domestically – what support can you as a business give to ensure that team members have a comfortable, well-connected and secure home working experience?

4. Invest in collaboration

Because a dispersed workforce will necessarily lose some of the natural collaboration inherent in a shared physical space it is essential that they’re given tools to facilitate remote collaboration.  From Slack to Hangouts, there are endless digital solutions to enable remote collaboration – letting staff understand the options and choose their preferred packages will help to drive interaction and collaboration across the board.

5. Don’t focus on the cost savings

Initially at least, flexible working shouldn’t be viewed primarily as a cost saving tool.  Measuring the impact purely by looking at the savings from reduced office space is never going to give you a meaningful insight.  Indeed, an overfocus on cost could damage the very project you’re trying to push forward.  For example, if you take away too many desks early on, home workers may feel that there’s no place for them in the central office, driving greater dispersion than necessary.

6. Measure and refine

No company gets flexible working right first time round, there will inevitably be snags and edge cases that require creative resolution.  The broadest impacts of the strategy should be assessed against a baseline and issues should be logged and discussed by an engaged working group.  Expecting the process to manage itself will simply store up trouble further down the line.

Beyond home-working

Of course, working from home isn’t for everyone.  Indeed, there are many industries where it’s not viable, for example retail and leisure.  Therefore flexibility needs to be about more than just enabling remote working.  For these situations, flexible opportunities such as sabbaticals or flexible holidays; perks or enhanced maternity/paternity benefits and childcare all add up to a more flexible environment for those who are tied to a central location.  Brewdog, so often an innovator in the corporate world, leads the pack in this area with its Employee Value Proposition, giving all of their staff access to a flexible work-life within the constraints of a typically inflexible working environment.

Conclusion

In summary, as a CEO or business leader, flexible working isn’t a choice.  Like Canute, you can’t simply remain unmoving in the face of the tide of changing workplace expectations.  The opportunity for businesses is to embrace, not fight, the rise of flexible working and to create a programme that works for employees and businesses alike.