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Making agile working ‘business as usual’

Prepare to play the long game. That was the refrain at last month’s Working Families conference on flexible working and inclusive leadership. The days of command-and-control management styles are over, but bringing flexible working from concept to reality is not just about updating policies around where, when and how people work; it’s about rebooting organisational culture.

Flexible working has matured since it was introduced as a way of encouraging maternity leavers back to the workplace. Almost all employees with more than 26 weeks’ service now have the right to request it and employers have a responsibility to handle these requests reasonably. While it’s not a legal requirement to say yes, more employers are beginning to recognise ‘agile’ or ‘smart’ working as a way to improve inclusion, boost organisational effectiveness and increase work-life integration.

But, as always, there are pockets of resistance. Challenging assumptions held by senior (and not-so-senior) people with rigid views around visibility at work can feel like a war, not just a battle. And, while creating a culture where you can come and go as long as you deliver might be fine for office workers, how does this translate to shift work, production and customer facing roles? At the conference we heard about overcoming these challenges from D&I leaders including RBS’s Head of Inclusion, Marjorie Strachan and self-described ‘flexibility fanatic’ Carole Edmond, CEO of Glass Moon Strategies.

Flexible working is everyone’s accountability

Inclusion, including the ability to work flexibly, is a business imperative, and it’s important to be clear on the commercial case for it. Research from McKinsey shows that organisations that are more diverse outperform national industry medians by somewhere between 15% (gender diversity) and 35% (racial and ethnic diversity). And for companies ranking in the top quartile of board-level diversity, ROEs are on average 53% higher, than those in the bottom quartile. As one of the key ways to boost inclusion, flexibility shouldn’t just be in the guardianship of HR, it needs to be part of what executives talk about when they talk about achieving business goals.

Shifting behaviours around agility at work

Behaviours around flexible working won’t change just because your policies do. You need to take action at all levels within your organisation, from identifying and encouraging champions at board-level, to building manager confidence and encouraging employees to ask for what they want.

Prepare your leaders for change by mapping out decision-makers and identifying potential champions of agility. Is there anyone at a senior level who has childcare responsibilities or special circumstances around when and how they work? Find out who they are and recruit them as allies. Influencers who push for change and model it will make the biggest difference to culture change.

Managers are key to getting smart working off the ground, so it’s vital they have both the skills and the desire to make it work. If they’re simply missing the skills to manage their teams flexibly, you’ll need to equip them with the ability to do so. What was highlighted at the conference, however, was that the opposite is actually more common: to have a cohort of managers with the skills but lacking the desire and confidence to oversee flexible workers. In these cases you’ll need to help them overcome their fears around what they likely view as loss of control, and educate them on the benefits of agile working to them and their team.

Employees must also feel that it’s ok to ask to work flexibly. One attendee talked about a situation in their organisation where there had been good overall uptake of agile working except for within a certain team where the thinking was, ‘don’t even bother asking.’ When they did some work to identify the issue, they discovered it stemmed from the negative attitude of a single manager. A manager who, as it turned out, no longer worked for the company had left a legacy in place that remained unchallenged because no one had ever voiced the issue.

The challenges of making flexibility universally obtainable

How do you offer the same opportunities for agility on a trading floor, in back-office operations and in a customer contact centre? The speakers agreed that flexible policies are still a work in progress and that there’s more work to be done to ensure that some form of flexibility is attainable by everyone. They talked about taking a harder look at job design, considering schedule-based working, and building in opportunities for micro and macro-flexibility. It’s clear that there are some practical issues still to be worked out, but the benefits of doing so will outweigh the cost.

Preparing the way for agile working

  1. Prepare by considering your company’s current culture, likely resistance to change (especially around clock-on, clock-off mentalities) and inconsistent policies that may be in place.
  1. When seeking commitment from those at senior level, have a clear, business-led narrative that demonstrates the commercial benefits of inclusivity. You shouldn’t be saying, ‘we should promote flexible working as a means to meet a target around inclusivity,’ you should be saying, ‘this will make our business better – and here’s how.’
  1. Don’t create a separate strategy on flexibility; it needs to be integrated into your company’s strategy, governance and values. The more you can make people see how being flexible will help your organisation achieve its goals, the easier it will be to get buy-in.
  1. Be clear on accountability. Flexibility is not just HR’s or the inclusion team’s accountability – it’s everyone’s. Putting ownership for flexibility and inclusion into the right places in your organisation will help to make a difference.
  1. Develop clear policies, toolsets and systems and that will work across different sectors within your company.
  1. Make communications digestible and keep up a constant drip feed to promote the benefits to employees and managers in both human and organisational terms. You probably already have examples of agile working in your organisation, it could just be a matter of finding these stories and telling them well.

 

Working Families has created an online guide to building the business case for flexible working. The guide gives step-by-step instructions to help you argue – and win – the case for smart working in your organisation.