Last year, the CIPD reported that more than half of us (54%) worked flexibly in some way over the previous year. That can be defined as anything from hotdesking, to flexing start and finish hours, to working from home. A healthy-looking number, but look at that figure again in March 2020, after the global outbreak of COVID-19 and enforced government lockdowns, and you are likely to see a very different picture. Flexible working has taken on a whole new meaning as organisations have been forced to allow their employees to work from home- whether they previously permitted it or not.
Companies looking for a bright side to the international lock down should see this as an opportunity to sharpen (or perhaps create for the first time) robust flexible working practices. Businesses for whom working from home would usually be a challenge, such as construction, transport operations, manufacturing and mining, have had to find innovative ways to maintain “business as usual” while remote working. Many companies have been forced to accelerate their systems and tech offering to provide the right type of support to enable people to be effective. It has also meant putting a greater amount of trust in their employees to do the right thing, which is likely to be rewarded in the long term with employee loyalty.
With a recruitment lens on, this can only be an advantage. International Workplace Group described flexible working as a “deal breaker” in attracting the best talent. The experience of my colleagues at Granger Reis echoes that sentiment. Job applicants are increasingly picking their employer based on their values and what benefit it will give them as an employee, rather than the other way around. To remain competitive in attracting the best talent, companies are asked to offer more than just monetary compensation, they are asked to show they care about the wellbeing and work-life balance of their employees.
This rings particularly true in attracting diverse talent. It has been well documented that one of the biggest challenges in achieving gender balance in senior teams is the inability to offer flexibility around childcare needs. This no longer applies just to parents - it applies to entire workforces who are seeing the benefits of balancing their home priorities with their career. Looking through other lenses of diversity, the benefits are also clear. Carolina Milanesi discussed in an article on Fast Company how working from home can improve an employer’s attractiveness to diverse candidates. People with neurodiversity, for example, may feel more productive and less distracted working from home while those with a physical disability could value overcoming issues of accessibility on transport and in the office. The bottom line is that offering employees flexibility will put you at a significant advantage in attracting and retaining diverse talent.
Flexible working doesn’t always have to be defined as home working either. For those industries that rely on presenteeism, offering other forms of flexibility such as flexing start and finish times, compressed hours, or job sharing can bring the same benefits that come from showing trust in your employees and care for their wellbeing.
As a strong believer in “practising what you preach”, Granger Reis introduced flexible working in 2016. We recognised the importance of showing our staff that we trusted them and wanted to cement that into our culture. I myself was returning to work after my first child. I was offered flexible working to give me the best possible chance of success as I re-joined the working world. At the same time, Granger Reis was aiming to increase the diversity of its own workforce and attract new diverse talent: introducing flexible working felt like a no brainer. The results were immediately visible. We’ve increased productivity which has led to greater profitability. What’s more, morale is at an all-time high. At a more holistic level, it has helped the team think about things in a different way: as a result of introducing hot-desking and a clear-desk policy (one of our flexible working initiatives), we found we were reducing waste and so recycling on a much larger scale which has prompted staff to consider other green initiatives and work towards B Corp certification. Working from home and flexible start and finish times has ultimately helped our team better service the needs of our international clients by flexing hours around different time zones.
Construction industry leader Sir Robert McAlpine, inspired us by announcing that they would be backing Flex Appeal, a campaign that champions flexible working across all industries. Chief Executive, Paul Hammer, said this about his company’s commitment to flexible working: “I want Sir Robert McAlpine to be an organisation where people thrive. We can see the potential benefits of flexible working to our own business, to our people, their mental health and the elusive work life balance.” He added, “We are going to work hard to trial flexible working in offices and across sites in order to find the best way to deliver our iconic projects, serve our clients and support our people’s wellbeing.”
These next few months will prove a test in many ways, but if we can take one good thing out of it, it is that companies have been fast-tracked down the road of flexible working that will help them remain competitive when attracting talent. It has the potential to fundamentally change the culture of business towards flexible and agile working. And while many industries we work with will not lose the need for people to be present, an openminded-ness for how flexibility can be offered will be made easier by the systems put in place to cope with the enforced lockdowns. It shouldn’t have taken a global pandemic to change the way we think about flexible working, but I for one welcome the sudden acceleration of change in the way we work.