Like many of the contributors to the Taylor Review, I shared my views on the day the report was published. The core of my response was that making permanent jobs more flexible – rather than just improving conditions for those who currently work flexibly – is critical to unlocking quality jobs for individuals for whom full time isn’t an option.
And whilst there’s broad agreement that this is a sensible approach which could help move the Taylor Review recommendations forward, there’s a much less widespread understanding of how flexible job design can be used in practice and what’s required to make it a success.
What does flexible job design actually involve?
The theory behind job design sounds straightforward: it’s about looking at the current parameters of a role and designing it afresh to fulfil a specific need. In the case of Timewise, that need is to build in flexibility that delivers the right work-life balance for an employee, whether through part-time roles, job shares, variable start and finish times or other flexible options.
However, in too many cases, employers simply look at the hours or patterns that an individual is working, and focus all their attention on how they can continue to deliver as before, but in fewer hours or from a different location. In doing so, they’re setting the individual up to fail, and potentially creating resentment amongst other employees who end up having to pick up the slack.
In practice, then, so-called flexible jobs are often not designed flexibly but have flexibility thrust upon them, without proper thought and with limited success. Clearly, that’s not right – but what should employers do instead? While specific solutions will be different for each sector or organisation, there are some core areas that always need to be addressed within proper job design:
- Looking at what your objectives are and what outputs are required to achieve them.
- Thinking about where your team needs to be and how often, if at all, they need to meet.
- Considering when your work needs to be done, and how many people need to be available at any one time.
- Challenging your preconceptions and looking creatively at what kinds of flexibility could work within the above parameters.
In our consultancy work, we explore these core areas and other related issues, using detailed research and analysis, to provide innovative solutions which fit with our clients’ needs and objectives. The outcome we are aiming for is what we call compatible flexibility; a way of working which is equally beneficial for employers and employees alike, and so delivers affordable, lasting change.
Job design in practice for social care and retail
Our recent pilot scheme in the social care sector demonstrates this perfectly. Through close consultation with policy makers, social care providers and front-line carers, we were able to develop a mutually beneficial solution: a geographical, team-based approach to scheduling which reduced travel time, allowed carers to have input into their rotas and improved the overall quality of care.
And right now, we’re working with five national retailers to investigate how job design could help them deliver career progression to senior level for flexible workers; critical for a sector in which the majority of the workforce is part time. Among the routes we are exploring are training managers in how to define and describe jobs based on outputs not inputs, and tackling decision makers about nurturing a mindset in which flexibility is approached as an opportunity, not a threat.
Taking job design to the next level
In addition to specific projects such as these, we are also getting ready to take job design to the next level through the creation of the Timewise Innovation Unit. This specialist ‘think tank do tank’ will bring together and share the best thinking, innovative practice and learning on how to redesign work, in order to develop cross-cutting business-led solutions to reimagine the modern workplace. It will be run using a social consultancy model and developed in collaboration with a number of strategic partners; do get in touch with me if you’re interested in getting involved.
In the meantime, the Taylor Review has underlined the fact that flexible working is here to stay, one way or another. The challenge for employers is to ensure that the way it works in your organisation benefits your business and your employees alike – and clever, creative job design has to be part of that process.
To find out more about our consultancy and training services, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call Natalie on 020 7633 4451