It’s not what it seems!

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the term ‘flexible working?’ If the answer is someone in their pyjamas, watching daytime TV when they’re meant to be working at their computer, then you are likely to be worried about new regulations that give everyone the right to request it. In fact, flexible working brings many benefits and there is little to fear.

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Business leaders who want to increase their use of flexibility need to push back against some of the common misconceptions. To help them, experts Karen Mattison (Director of Timewise) and Clare Kelliher (Professor of Work and Organisation at Cranfield School of Management, Cranfield University) provide the counter-arguments.

1.  ‘Employees are less productive’

Evidence has shown the opposite to be true. Businesses that allow people an element of choice over how they organise their work and non-work life have been rewarded by increased commitment. Employees become more loyal, and are more likely to go the extra mile.

2.  ‘My employees will use it as an excuse to skive off’

There is a chance that an employee will take it easy or waste time – but the sort of person who takes advantage of flexible working is just as likely to take advantage even if you can see them sitting at their computer. More thought is needed to find accurate ways of measuring performance, including looking at outputs rather than inputs. Employers could then judge if an employee is meeting the goals and targets they have been set, rather than focus on when and how they do it.

3.  ‘People will be very rigid about their hours’

Employees who are able to tailor their working hours to suit themselves are often willing to work longer hours to suit the needs of the business. Someone who works remotely, for instance, might take their working day to mean the time they would leave the house for work, until the time they would return if they were travelling, resulting in additional working hours. Many are also more willing to communicate with clients in different time zones, outside normal working hours, when they are able to do that work at home. Good communication can establish the boundaries – people need to be more confident about speaking honestly about flexibility and availability and what the expectations are.

4.  ‘If I give it to one, I’ll have to give it to everybody’

Some roles aren’t suited to flexible working. While everyone has the right to ask for flexible working, not everyone has the right to be given it. In some businesses, only those employees who demonstrate good performance are ‘rewarded’ with flexibility. Moreover, making flexible working an option for everyone doesn’t mean the floodgates will open. Regular working hours in an office environment suit some people – for them, that is the right arrangement. It’s a question of allowing flexibility for those who have different demands in their lives, when it suits the role and the business needs.

5.  ‘Urgent things won’t get dealt with’

This relates to the earlier misconception about staff working rigid hours and employers’ concerns about them not being available when needed. Flexible working does require a different approach, but it’s entirely possible to organise things in order to ensure important work gets done. It needs good prioritisation, good communication with other members of the team, accessibility when it’s an emergency, and an understanding that flexible workers have the same responsibility as others for making sure that their work gets done on time.

6.  ‘Once you agree to it, you’re stuck with it’

What happens if you decide, like Yahoo! boss Marissa Mayer, that things aren’t working and want to backtrack? Individual working agreements can be reviewed and changed if they no longer suit the needs of the business – if it becomes clear that the job can no longer be done in less time, for instance. It’s important that employers understand that it’s OK to say no, or that ‘tweaks’ can be made along the way if problems come up such as there ending up being certain days that no one’s to be found in the office. But making adjustments as you go along is usually preferable to a blanket ban, because if you remove the element of choice, you risk losing the benefits of good will and the additional effort people put in.

7.  ‘The rest of the team will be left to pick up the can’

Many employers have found the contrary to be true – often the hardest working, and most efficient employees in their team are those who leave on the dot of 5.30 pm because of child care commitments. If the worry is that somebody is just going to go off and leave a job to the rest of the team then they’re not working flexibly, they are working quite rigidly.

8.  ‘Communication will suffer’

It is possible to find ways to capture the benefits of informal, impromptu conversation without insisting that everyone works from the office. For instance, managers can schedule a regular catch up with employees who work remotely. There doesn’t need to be a particular purpose or agenda – it can just be the kind of conversation you might have when you run into somebody in the corridor. Employers have found these are a useful way of touching base on a few parts of their work, or raising any issues that are floating around.

9.  Clients won’t like it

If you are open about letting your team working flexibly, it’s true that some of your clients might think they’re not getting a good service. But that will become less likely as flexible working becomes more widespread, and your clients might well start asking about your policy. As employee well-being and creating good places to work become higher on the agenda of many businesses, it’s likely clients will want to ensure that those things are in their supply chain.

10. Flexible workers don’t put work first

As an employer, you may be concerned about someone’s priorities if they want to work flexibly. But look around, and you’ll see that even CEOs are working at home or working a 4 day week. It’s not necessarily a bad thing if an employee wants to keep work in its place if they’re still going to bring the results. What’s needed is a rethink about how we create boundaries for work availability, how we assess if an employee is working in the best way for them, the performance that is needed, and how that can be evaluated.