In the ever-fluctuating world of COVID-19 restrictions, few white-collar workers will have had a consistent working life over the past two years.
Mandatory home working, followed by encouragement to get back to the office, only to then be advised (but not compelled) to work from home again; it’s a pattern that’s been on repeat since the pandemic began.
In response, large swathes of employers have embraced so-called ‘hybrid working’. This approach typically requires staff to be in the office a few days a week, with home working permitted the rest of the time.
Satisfied they’ve done enough, the majority of employers stopped the train heading towards flexibility station and got off there.
But this confidence is misplaced. Because most companies are getting flexible working wrong.
Instead of empowering employees through a genuinely flexible approach to working, most employers have simply created a new (admittedly slightly less rigid) mold that everyone is expected to fit into.
I come across companies every day proudly touting their flexible credentials, when they’re offering very little to staff. Or, even worse, only granting access to flexible working policies when people have ‘a reason’.
This othering of employees who want the option to be flexible but have to ask for it harks back to the pre-pandemic days when people working remotely were seen as ‘bunking off’.
By putting the onus on staff to ask for flexibility, it positions them and their way of working as outside of the norm. It’s not a recipe for a thriving, modern, and productive working culture.
How to do flexible working right
Genuine flexibility is about more than getting to work from home on a Friday. It goes so far beyond this light-touch approach and recognizes that employees are individuals and, as such, thrive in different environments.
This might mean starting early and signing-off mid-afternoon, or perhaps working remotely on a permanent basis, possibly from a different country. Or it could mean spending every day in a co-working space.
The point is that companies get the best from their teams when employees feel trusted and empowered to shape their own working environment.
And I should know. From the age of 18, I have lived with an autoimmune disease – one which causes a variety of symptoms including pain and discomfort that can stop me from walking.
During my time working in finance, my condition would regularly make it almost impossible for me to travel into an office.
However, when I asked my old employer if I could work from home one day a week, I was fired. Despite being a hard worker and dedicated staff member, I didn’t fit the mold they had deemed correct. My condition meant that I became a problem, one they weren’t willing to solve.
As a result of this terrible experience, I’ve gone on to champion the need for transparency around flexibility. It’s something I’m passionate about.
I believe that in a modern, inclusive economy, the onus should be on companies to clearly showcase what they offer, rather than for candidates to ask (and potentially be unfairly judged as a result).
Encouragingly, we are seeing more and more companies step up to this challenge and embrace genuine flexibility, and surprise surprise, these employers are reaping the benefits in the current economic climate.
Staff know that the future of work is about freedom and about choice and they are flocking towards the companies that are offering it; 41% of people are considering leaving their roles, and 81% of those people want flexibility.
Where will they go? To the flexible employers.
Embrace tech and a new mindset
The irony is, implementing some form of genuinely flexible working isn’t that complicated. It’s not just the preserve of small companies or trendy startups – we have the tools and the data to make it happen in every workplace, right now.
For a start, there is now ample technology available to help such transitions go smoothly. Whether it’s enhanced virtual meeting tools to enable disparate workforces to feel connected, or investing in remote working platforms to help manage the tax and HR side of things.
There are virtual reality (VR) & augmented reality (AR) solutions to provide training (with the metaverse on track to bring even more), and task management platforms to bring transparency to daily workloads. The choices are large and ever-expanding.
In addition to the technologies which can make this transition easier, what the shift towards genuine flexible working also requires is a change in mindset and a removal of preconceptions about those who want to work flexibly.
There are still deep-rooted preconceptions about people who work ‘differently’ and certain sectors, companies, and bosses are slow to shake these off. These can be particularly damaging to sections of society already on the backfoot when it comes to the job market: such as disabled people, women with caring responsibilities, and older people.
Instead of paying lip service to flexible working but favoring ‘traditional’ patterns of work in practice, leaders should be setting an example. If a company offers flexible working, but managers and senior staff are in the office 9-to-5, five days a week, that will radically impact how comfortable more junior staff feel about making use of flexible working policies.
But if managers set the tone and are visibly seen to embrace a flexible approach, it creates a culture where everyone is empowered to work in the way that’s right for them, regardless of their level of seniority.
All employers should be constantly challenging their own flexible working policies and endeavoring to do better. The transition towards a better way of working doesn’t have a specific destination; it’s a process.
And learning from mistakes and looking to others for inspiration is a core part of that. This includes speaking to your staff and listening to their views and perspectives.
It’s time we all recognized what genuine flexible working truly looks like. Then it’s time to get to work.