The business world has come a long way in its journey to embracing flexibility. “There is now buy-in to the benefits at a strategic business level. Ten years ago there wasn’t that acceptance,” says Timewise Managing Director David Curtis.
Despite this willingness to consider flexibility, businesses struggle to justify it at the operational level. Faced with a tough economic environment, KPIs to meet and demands on their budgets, leaders find it impossible to commit to the major expense and upheaval they believe might be needed.
It doesn’t need to be that way. “The Holy Grail that everyone is searching for is the generic business case for flexible working, but it doesn’t exist,” says David. “Rather than being a big change management piece, companies should look at flexibility on a project by project basis. It is a tool they can add into the mix.”
David adds that it is far less onerous for businesses to consider flexible working as one of a number of tools available to them, and to ask themselves what they will lose by ignoring it in a particular scenario. “There’s a danger that if you can’t do everything you end up doing nothing,” he cautions.
Recruit the best
CBI Director for Employment and Skills Neil Carberry agrees it is important that companies take flexible steps if they are to compete. “As a business, you need to access the widest pool of skills and talent to maintain competitiveness,” he says. “It makes sense to take that wherever you can find it.”
Those who successfully adopt remote working techniques can employ them during transport strikes, snow storms and office moves. Flexibility also feeds into a positive brand for a business and creates an engaged and effective workforce. “Staff who are engaged will go the extra mile.”
Neil identifies strong leadership and line manager understanding of flexibility as being crucial to success. He also sees customer service businesses increasingly matching demand with flexible shifts. “If you’re running a 12 hour customer service operation it makes sense to slot people in at times they want to work.”
David Dunbar, General Manager of BT Flexible Working Services, agrees that cultural strength and staff engagement are extremely valuable for business and flexible working is the way to achieve it. “Flexible workers can respond to changing demands, can get products to market more quickly and adapt to change easily,” he says.
Dunbar points out that when it comes to the business case for flexible working, companies often seize on the most tangible savings of property and infrastructure. An agile approach usually means 30-40% of the desks and space can be lost. “In very simple terms, you can save on space and reduce churn. However the business case is much more complex and much bigger than that.”
The benefits range from recruitment, engagement, productivity and culture, to disaster recovery and a firm’s carbon footprint. “If you have a workforce that is more agile, flexible and clear on their objectives, they can work more productively. It is a difficult thing to build into the business case but is probably the single biggest benefit. If you can get 20% more productivity from your workforce that puts any property savings in the shade.”
Case study: Northern Trust
For financial services business Northern Trust, the promotion of flexible working is a major differentiator in an industry that is famed for long hours and male dominated environments.
The company last year initiated a remote working pilot programme to enhance employee engagement, one of its top three global priorities. Four business departments took part in the trial and the concept is now being rolled out to other areas.
Pamela Hutchinson is Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer EMEA & APAC. “At the start of the pilot there was 82% positive engagement for the initiative. By the end it was 92%,” she says. “Even the employees who were not taking part supported it and managers did not see any adverse impact on team performance.”
“Flexibility is something we have always been hugely proud of,” she says. “We want our employees to feel engaged.”
In the last year, the business approved 90% of flexible working requests. A third of those working flexibly are men, and 10% are senior. Hutchinson says a pro-flexible approach increases engagement, loyalty and staff retention. “We also have more women working here,” she adds.
Technology has played its part. “Younger people coming into the company want to work differently. You have to move with the times if you want to recruit talent.”
Heather Greig-Smith is a journalist writing about flexible working issues.
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