‘Flexible’ and ‘agile’ appear in conversations relating to business, and the way work is organised. Even as more organisations adopt these disciplines, it is worth clarifying the difference between them. There are many ways to work more flexibly. The list would include job-sharing, working from home, part-time work, compressed hours, i.e. working full-time hours but over fewer days and flexitime. You might reasonably characterise these as ‘work style’ choices.
By contrast, agile focuses on the way the organisation and teams work to innovate. In the traditional approach, a project goes through stages in sequence, with, for example requirements, leading to planning, then design, development and implementation in turn. In an agile project, planning, design and development happen in parallel, rather than in sequence. Changes in one element have knock-on and feedback effects on other parts of the project, and this happens dynamically and interactively.
While the two are very different, flexible working may support agile working practices. Flexible working offers many other benefits to the organisation, as well as obvious benefits to employees. If we look at flexible working from the employee’s perspective, it leads to and explains some of the benefits for the organisation.
What could you do with a million minutes?
For many, depending on the nature of the role, flexible working gives you a choice about where you do your job. At home, in a coffee shop or while travelling. The ability to fit work into life more conveniently has obvious attractions. Especially when you realise that someone with a typical 45-minute commute will spend nearly a million minutes of his or her life going back and forth. Add in the unexpected late arrival, missed connection or traffic jam and you are likely to pass the million minute threshold.
Apart from saving some of that commute, technology and working practices can combine to free employees from traditional working hours. This freedom works both ways: if it is a nice sunny afternoon, then go out and catch up on work later; but if there is a project with tight deadlines, it is easy to work in the evening without coming home ridiculously late. It dispels the myth that going to work means physically being in the office. Perhaps it is not surprising that a UK survey showed that 89 per cent of employees considered flexible working to be a key motivator to their productivity, even scoring higher than money as a motivator, on 77 per cent.
The productivity effect
The daily commute can greatly affect employee wellbeing; those with long commutes are 40 per cent more likely to have financial worries and 12 per cent more likely to suffer from workplace stress. Flexible working reduces these problems by cutting out the need to commute every day. A more flexible start to the day seems to lead to more satisfaction with one’s career. It turns out that one of the things employees do with the million minutes is give some of it back: some of the time the employee does not spend commuting, they spend doing extra work.
There is a variety of contributors to a productivity effect. For example, less constrictive business hours can help reduce stress and improve mental health as employees work in a manner that suits them best. There is a measurable effect in reduced sick leave taken,
Around two thirds of employees say they work more productively in their home office, citing fewer interruptions, fewer distractions, reduced commuting, less noise, and fewer and more efficient meetings. Claims made of productivity increases vary widely, just as the nature of work varies widely, in some cases as high as 40 per cent. It would be more reasonable to plan on an increase in the low teens, like the 13 per cent gain reported in this study.
The retention effect
Staff retention is a further benefit of flexible working, as 63 per cent of employees say they are more likely to stay with an employer if they offer opportunities to work from home, or different and varied hours of work. The effect is even stronger in the next generation of the workforce; 82 per cent of millennials would be more loyal to their employer if they had flexible working options.
It is not only good for retention; there is a recruitment effect too. Nine out of ten people say they want to work flexibly, so offering flexible working makes your business a more attractive proposition and gives an edge in the competitive search for talent.
Flexibility also widens the pool of potential applicants. It makes a big difference to those seeking a return to work, who need to tailor the way work fits with life’s imperatives. You can also access a far wider geographical pool of talent by enabling people to work remotely, as you do not have to rely only on people for whom commuting is a practical, if less desirable proposition.
A boost for employee engagement
If there is a focus on the quality of work done, rather than the hours put in, then flexible working can help create a stronger level of trust between the employer and employee. Employees have more freedom and improved morale with managers. Job satisfaction, and in turn dedication, increases, when employees work in the way that suits them, with fewer restrictions that many see as arbitrary.
Depending on their role, greater freedom may allow staff to take more responsibility, show more initiative and feel more pride in their work, which can only be good for the quality of the work they do. In 2016, a Fortune 500 company conducted an experiment where a selected group of employees learned about work practices designed to increase their sense of control over their work lives. These focused on results, rather than time at work. Their managers also had training to encourage support for the family, personal life and professional development of their staff.
Apart from feeling more in control of their lives, and a better work-life balance, employees in the trial reported greater job satisfaction, were less burned out and less stressed. For the business, these workers are also more efficient and more productive on the job and responded better to peak workloads partly because they could plan for it.
So far, I have focused mainly on the benefits for the employee and way that reflects in their performance. The ripples from flexible working spread more widely. With more people working from home, and reducing peak presence at work, organisations can save money. Perhaps not downsizing premises, but avoiding an increase, using space more efficiently and cutting some overheads.
With fewer people travelling into the office, you help reduce pollution. By spreading out the commuting that is done, you help reduce congestion. These policies help make your business more sustainable.
Good management is critical
Just as the Fortune 500 company experiment involved managers in enabling a more flexible approach to work, management is critical for flexible working to be a success. In fact, if you ask the workers, 73 per cent say they need a culture where people are judged on the work they do, rather than the hours they put in, and 70 per cent say managers must support their team to achieve a work life balance.
That said, the management practices that make flexible working a success are those that generally make working relationships a success: proactive communication, measuring performance and results, and measuring them frequently, with a focus on processes and process improvement to ensure productivity and well-supported staff.
Technology is critical too
Great technology is also a critical enabler of flexible working, making work something you do, rather than a place you go. Mobile devices improve connectivity, and texts and chats supplement email and phone calls to improve communication within the business and with clients.
Of course, with remote employees, technology that works well is an essential part of the equation. A quick call to the help desk can happen remotely, but an out of hours call may be difficult, and desk side support is not practical. A technology lifecycle plan with refreshes happening on time, as scheduled, will keep remote workers working, and raise satisfaction with what IT delivers. A sound technology foundation will help organisations and employees realise the potential flexible working has to offer.
Carmen Ene, CEO, 3 Step IT