If you work flexibly yourself, it is likely that you feel comfortable in supporting flexible working by others in your team; if you have never worked flexibly yourself, you may feel hesitant and prefer your team to continue to work as they always have done.
Whatever your current engagement with flexibility, it seems increasingly as though Coronavirus is going to force at least a short-term change in how many teams work. I think we can take encouragement from how London-based organisations managed around the Olympics. That was a much happier spur to engaging with flexibility, but nevertheless, one which created much worry and initial resistance back in 2012. But needs must, when the roads and all forms of public transport were predicted to be overwhelmed by visitors to the Games. People rethought their working patterns, and set themselves up to work from home, with lasting and positive impact in many organisations.
So, to near-future-proof your team from any restrictions on travel, or to support colleagues who may be required to self-isolate, what do you need to think about?
The first thing is to embrace this as an opportunity to develop your own skills in managing your team and its work to its best.
Flexible working has been around for about thirty years, but has been sadly misused, mummy-tracked into a career-damaging accommodation for women with young children. That is really changing now, driven by sustained evidence that it is good for the quantity and quality of a person’s work; enabled by technology; and given a rocket boost by the expectations of a younger generation of workers. Essentially, the world is changing, what people want is changing, how we work is changing and so how you manage work has to change too.
Even without virus-enforced home working, it’s worth investing time in developing flexible working for your team. Why?
Flexible workers have a higher level of job satisfaction, greater commitment, are more likely to increase discretionary effort compared to those who do not work flexibly - essentially, loyalty and retention increases.
Flexible workers are more likely to be engaged, which yields significant advantages– potentially generating 43% more revenue and improving performance by 20%, compared to disengaged employees.
Staff are more likely to recommend their employer as a good place to work, when flexibility is available. It’s a truism, that your people are your best PR, but that’s never been more true than it is today as social media amplifies opinions, good and bad.
And finally there is a huge unmet demand for more flexible jobs in the UK today: 87% of people want to work flexibly, but only 11% of jobs are advertised as such. It’s even more noticeable among younger people - more than 90% are looking for flex - so this is critical to building your future talent pipeline.
The second thing is to remind yourself that while there are many forms of flexible working, essentially we are talking about how long, at what times and where your people work. Those are the building blocks - the mortar which holds them together successfully is a combination of common sense and creativity; the underpinning foundation is trust.
When you look at each role in your team in those terms, you should quickly see how changing where and when people work is only part of the picture and (at least for roles which are not tied to particular hours in a specific location - unlike, for example, in retail or construction) that what really matters to you as a manager is what has to be delivered, the milestones and success measures. This is about being a better manager - making a one-off time investment which enables you to be very clear about WHAT, and to step away from the how, when, where.
The final critical element is to talk to your team. Whether engaging with flexibility is in the end driven by coronavirus, or - we must all sincerely hope - simply the result of someone requesting a new working arrangement, don’t try to manage it or to rethink it on your own. I have seen in many organisations that the most effective way of managing flexibility is to use the team’s collective brain and build shared commitment to making flex work. Create shared protocols together, setting out what flexibility means in your particular team and your particular part of the business.
Flexible working is a tool which can transform the performance of your team. Good luck!
Sarah Jackson OBE is a leading authority on work-life issues in the UK. She led the work-life charity Working Families for 24 years and was appointed OBE for services to quality of life issues in 2007. She is Chair of Parents and Carers in Performing Arts and a Visiting Professor at Cranfield University School of Management.
Sarah has been instrumental in shaping family-friendly policy, legislation and public attitudes for over two decades. Her fresh thinking about the UK’s work-life challenges has included the creation of Go Home On Time Day, the Happy to Talk Flexible Working recruitment standard, and the annual Working Families/Bright Horizons Modern Families Index.
If you employ people in your business or home and are concerned about their rights should they be affected by the coronavirus take a look at our article.
If your business is keen to offer more flexibility to its employees, the Parental Choice Employee Wellbeing Programme includes a talk on flexible working for managers.
The talk, which can be delivered in-person or remotely, provides line managers with strategies to effectively cope when employees work flexibly.