In 2014, the government enshrined in law an employee’s right to make a statutory application for flexible working. The new flexible working legislation dictated that an employer must handle a request in a ‘reasonable manner’. ACAS provided a list of reasons for why an employer might reject a request. In just two years it’s become harder to justify these objections – such is the power and pace of modern technology.
Take the burden of additional costs, as cited by ACAS, for example. A flexible workforce doesn’t have to increase costs. In fact, more often than not, it reduces them.
After salaries, accommodation accounts for the highest expense in most office-based organisations.
In 2015, Carter Jonas’ quarterly review noted that office rents across nine sub-markets are forecast to rise by an average of 13% by mid-2017. In the wake of continued rent and business rates increases, businesses are now exploiting advances in mobile data/telecoms technology to reduce their property footprint and operating costs.
According to ACAS, employers can also refuse the right to work flexibly if it will lead to difficulties in recruiting additional staff, a detrimental impact on quality and performance or reduced ability to meet customer demand.
It goes without saying that each reason would be more severely hampered by the loss of talent as a result of not offering a flexible working arrangement – particularly as Britain is already facing a skills shortage.
In a Regus survey, more than nine in 10 respondents said, given a choice of two similar jobs, they would choose the one that offered more flexible working options. So you see it matters. A reluctance to accommodate flexible working could be the reason why some highly sought-after individuals accept competitor offers.
Similarly, a substantial RSA study, creatively titled ‘The Flex Factor’ further weakens employer grounds for refusal. Rather than compromising productivity, the RSA observed that flexible working can lead to 5:1 more productive hours per week per employee, which equates to c. £4200 per annum per employee, and can boost organisational performance by 5%. Both calculations are reason enough to embrace a flexible working culture.
In part, this explains why - despite the wealth of evidence to prove that people want the option to work flexibly (particularly millennials) - many still feel worried about lodging their formal request to work flexibly, out of concern that it would be interpreted as a form of indolence or lack of ambition.
In 2013, the Yahoo chief executive, Marissa Mayer, announced a ban on employees working from home. A leaked memo explained: “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings.”
While this is often the case, flexible working can accommodate the same sort of frisson and ideation. However, to make a success of flexible working you need trust. The best way to build trust is to ensure that objectives are clear from the outset and productivity is measured and regularly discussed. Each practice places communication at the heart of the matter. For many, this means regular team get catch-ups, both in-person and over the phone, and a commitment to work collaboratively.
Primed for the flex effect
Such resistance can be easily overcome with the right technology. The modern office is well equipped to facilitate flexible working; but many places of work are still in the doldrums - in desperate need of a digital makeover.
The good news is - every office has the potential to suit-up; just as the Ministry of Defence did. As part of a drive to increase efficiency it has made flexible working for both military and civilian staff, in the UK and across the world, commonplace. This was made possible by advances in cloud technology, such as BT smartnumbers, which ensures that a telephone call never needs to be missed because someone is out of the office. Calls can be delivered to a person wherever they are and unanswered calls can be diverted to nominated delegates.
Firms can also provide staff with two numbers on one phone (for instance a work number on a personal phone). Meaning staff don’t need to juggle two devices. As well as the latest in secure voice recorded conversations, whether they’re in the office or in the move; so a company needn’t feel exposed by operating a virtual workforce. It also enables financial organisations to comply with regulations such as MiFID II which mandates that all telephone conversations of individuals directly involved in trading need to be recorded and stored for five years.
Over the last ten years, business commentators have tirelessly debated (and commended) flexible working within an inch of itself. We’ve now reached an inflection point. Technology is facilitating seamless communication, internally, between teams, and externally, with clients to make mobile working a natural extension of the office.
Creating a new rhythm
The RSA report also observes that there have been some fairly seismic changes in demographics, gender roles (i.e. more parents juggling work and home commitments), and industry as a whole, evidenced by swathes of professions disappearing and new ones coming to the fore. And yet most of us work in rhythms that would be familiar to our parents and grandparents. For instance, we still commute on crowded trains and roads - despite the cost of inner city housing pushing people deeper into the regions.
But this is not to say that things aren’t changing. According to a prediction made by the FT three years ago, flexibility within a structured environment could be a “third way” model for future working.
Now more than ever, given the financial implications of Brexit, industries will be looking at ways to claw back their costs and increase productivity. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) estimated that the UK’s human capital – our collective knowledge, skills and capabilities – is worth around £17 trillion. This is more than two and a half times the value of our physical, or ‘tangible’ assets. Even marginal improvements in productivity, efficiency or innovation through better flexible working could generate major economic returns. Based on this extrapolation alone, it’s time to make flexible working the norm rather than the exception.
James Foley, VP of customer experience at BT smartnumbers