Guest opinion – Getting flexible working right.

The need for business flexibility has never been greater, and grows ever stronger. Globalisation, increased competition and customer demand make flexibility a key plank of high performance since organisations pursuing a high-performance path need to adjust working time to meet changing patterns of demand. As a result, different forms of organisation such as outsourcing, off-shoring, and 24/7operations are becoming commonplace. Employees want flexibility too. The way people organise their work is being transformed as the workforce ages, the ‘sandwich generation’ juggles multiple care responsibilities, and young people choose not to emulate the long hours, continuous employment working patterns of their elders.

Currently around 29% of UK employees work part-time or in some other form of flexible working pattern. The number of part-time roles is now increasing faster than the number of full-time jobs. However, while the drivers of flexibility may be strong, there appears to be a big mismatch between what employers need in the way of flexibility, and their approach to managing for flexibility, which often tends to be reactive and relatively rigid. At best, employers focus on providing an ever-wider range of flexible working options but then wonder why take-up remains small.

Real flexibility requires a more holistic and systemic approach and can only be effective in partnership with employees. In reality, flexibility tends to be imposed on staff whether or not they want it. Conversely, employees who wish to work flexibly may be denied the opportunity unless they happen to belong to the groups of workers whom legislation stipulates have the right to request.

Organisations want functional and occupational flexibility to enhance product quality by improving skill levels, developing working practices that utilise skills to the full, and enabling workers to become mobile between different tasks. However, this calls for a strategic and proactive approach to talent management and resourcing, and in practice, employee development is still often seen as an expensive nice-to-have. Organisations want wage flexibility to enable pay to vary in line with individual or team performance, as well as fluctuations in external labour-market conditions, as an incentive to higher productivity.

This too can be undermined by old-style employee relations, debates about perceived comparability of contributions and equity issues between staff working on different contracts. Perhaps the greatest mismatch is in organisational mindset. In theory, a flexible mindset enables organisations to tap into all available talent, embracing diversity and adopting patterns of working that enable employees to combine jobs with domestic responsibilities.

In practice, many bosses have not got their heads around the management of achieving genuine business flexibility and high performance. Many managers struggle to manage flexible workers, often favouring management styles of neglect or over-interference. Staff too have not figured out how to make flexibility work for them, and many who could benefit from flexible working do not take up the options available. They are fearful of paying the price in terms of career development, since all too often requests for flexible working are regarded as a sign of lack of commitment or ambition.

Full time†workers too often resent the perceived extra workloads they experience as a result of a colleague working flexibly. What is required is a total shift of mindset on flexibility. Rather than viewing flexible working as the exception to the norm, full-time working should come to be seen as only one of many options. In an ever more challenging business context, a big change on flexibility is needed.

Employers would do well to get together to share experiences about how to make flexibility work and tap into existing good practice. Big change needs commitment at the highest level. Top organisations will be those whose leaders have the vision and determination to proactively build and share the benefits of flexibility.