What Does Workplace Flexibility Mean to Your Workforce?

“We need to address the societal well-being of our nation, not just the economic well-being,” stated New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, in her now famous address to the World Economic Forum earlier this year. And we are seeing businesses follow suit with this growing awareness of well-being integrating into our daily work lives. We now have enough evidence to conclude that workplace flexibility delivers favourable results to both the business, the workplace and the individual employee. It is therefore now widely recognised that an employee’s well-being is inextricably linked to the company’s bottom line.

We are increasingly being told that work flexibility is an important facilitator of an individual’s ability to administer self-care and increase their overall well-being.  The growing demand for work flexibility comes from a variety of individual needs, generally either to allow room for an individual’s positive lifestyle choices, or to accommodate for family commitments such as caring for dependants.  We have also seen a shift in the way people approach work, with individuals increasingly demanding workplaces where they feel engaged and valued as an employee.

Technology has seen us all become fully immersed in a digital age, with the millennial generation reaching adulthood in a networked world. This generation in particular is looking for an employee ‘experience’ where work is fulfilling and central to their unique identity. Access to technology has resulted in employees being able to potentially work anywhere, and we now see a blurring of lines when we think of work and home and the flexibility that could potentially be offered to get the work-life balance right.

The IWG Global Workforce Survey stated that ‘in the eleven years since we first published our annual Global Workspace Survey, the world of work has changed dramatically. The idea of commuting for hours to work 9-5 in a dreary office is fast becoming about as relevant as a fax machine in the working day.’

What is a flexible employer?

In countries across the world there are various pieces of legislation which provide an employee with the right to request flexible working. Flexible working is fast becoming the norm and employees will expect a certain amount of flexibility when they are job searching. The IWG Global Workforce Survey reported that the global average of businesses with a flexible workspace policy is 62%.

But is offering the ‘norm’ really being a flexible employer? It’s important to remember that flexibility will mean different things to different people. Individuals will have their own opinion on how they want to work flexibly, and this could include their hours, working patterns, workplace location, leave and even workload. And it goes without saying that if you are offering this flexible working, employees need access to the resources and technology to be able to ‘truly’ work flexibly, with senior management being fully on board with the process.

As organisations compete to recruit top talent, HR leaders are becoming more innovative with their flexible working offers. Virgin, Netflix and LinkedIn all offer their workforce unlimited annual leave. Employees are able to take as much leave as they like and use it for a number of reasons: spending time with family, children starting school, extended trips overseas.

The United Kingdom Ministry of Defence had a challenge to be flexible, as their Regular Armed Forces are contracted to be available 365 days a year. They launched a Flexible Duties Trial, allowing serving personnel to ‘dial down’ their level of commitment for a limited period. Their aim was to retain their talented and experienced personnel, whilst supporting recruitment of the next generation.

Why should you be a flexible employer?

It is what people want and what they now expect from their employer. Flexible working offers could play a critical role in ensuring the efficiency of a business and maintaining a competitive edge. The IWG Workforce Survey revealed that Brazil and Mexico both saw over an 80 per cent increase in productivity, believed to be made by a flexible workspace policy. Interestingly, both of these countries have also topped the charts for the worst commutes and traffic jams in recent years.

Building an organisation that has a culture of good flexibility will support diversity and well-being. A work-life balance that reduces stress is an important factor for older workers and workers with young families, caring responsibilities and health issues. Younger generations are more likely to be drawn to employers that offer flexible working locations, so they are able to balance work with their lifestyles and avoid heavy commutes.

With various reports and statistics from across the globe suggesting that careers with a flexible working structure are more attractive, and many workers preferring this to a pay rise, it’s no surprise that flexible working will benefit your recruitment and retention efforts. Also, according to a research report by the Swedish Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, a flexible working environment results in a reduction of the incidence of sick leave.

A flexible working policy will form part of the overall employee experience, coupled with inclusivity, wellbeing and engagement. This culture is becoming part of a package of perks that are offered to a workforce and will support a business looking to become ‘Tomorrow’s Employer of Choice.’

Implementing and managing flexibility

Remembering that one size does not fit all will be crucial to the success of any workspace policy being implemented. All employees should be treated fairly and with a diverse and talented workforce, staff engagement will guide HR leaders when they are planning to commence, change or add to their flexible working offers. Flexibility does not always have to be complicated, and sometimes it pays to keep it simple. Offering privacy areas in a busy office, for example, provides an alternative working station for employees, but is simple and effective.

Many brands (such as Gap mentioned earlier in the article) will trial new working ideas to be clear on any expected outcomes such as increased productivity or reducing sickness leave.

Flexible working is a culture and should be respected and understood by the whole organisation. It needs to be visible from leadership level. According to the UK’s Modern Families Index 2019, flexible working will only bring benefits if it is complemented by a supportive culture and managed correctly. There could be a fear of resentment or a negative perception of career progression if this culture is not instilled.

Managers will have to show a level of trust to those working flexibly, as visibility of the person will be reduced. Managers and employees need to agree on expected outcomes, have open discussions about flexible arrangements and supervisions and be willing to adapt. Flexible working will not succeed in an old age culture which values ‘presenteeism’, long working hours and rigid schedules.

A workforce will need to be equipped with software and tech that enable them to successfully work remotely. Flexible working should mean ‘business as usual’ but without a supportive network for the employee it could result in limited outputs, decreased communication, frustrations and the inability to work in this way at all. Mobile devices, cloud services, laptops, security and video conferencing are all tools that will enhance the ‘employee experience’ whilst out of the office.

The future could see the death of the 9-5 job, and perhaps even the working office. Being prepared for this, as well as attracting and retaining employees, will be key to a talented, diverse and motivated workforce. How’s your flexibility?

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