There seems to be a consensus building across the UK that working flexibly is, in concept, great for the employer as well as the employee. And yet there are barriers for some employers. They still feel hesitant to take the leap and embrace flexible working. No doubt this is because of the perceived problems that smart working can bring. What are these potential barriers?
It’s difficult to get away from the fact that there’s a cost to setting up your employees for remote working.
Some managers may worry that distraction at home will mean that their people won’t put in a good day’s work.
There’s also a concern that if everyone works from home, there’s a risk to team cohesion and effectiveness.
Not all roles can achieve equal levels of flexibility. Whilst a shop worker can’t serve customers at two in the morning from home, the shop’s manager could do the accounts at that time. Managers argue that such a situation may cause resentment.
The above risks are potentially real, but there are also risks if you don’t embrace smart working:
Increasingly, people want a better work-life balance. For most, this doesn’t mean working less, it means choosing where, when and how they work. So, if you don’t offer it, your people may find a company that does.
People work better and more effectively at different times of the day. Some people find they are at their most productive at five in the morning. Others may produce their best work by working through the night. By forcing fixed hours you are probably not getting as much output per hour as you would if you were more flexible. Similarly, most people appreciate a lack of commute to work and are happy to use at least some of that time to work productively.
We all know how long it takes and what it costs to recruit great people. What’s more, the best people usually have the most job offers. Many will be likely to choose employers who value smart workers. If you don’t offer such flexibility, you’ll be missing out on good people, making your recruitment process longer and more expensive. Furthermore, you’re saddled with the cost of the time that role remains unfilled.
There are risks to embracing and to avoiding flexibility. In an ideal world, both the company and the employee would enjoy the benefits of flexibility by breaking down the barriers already mentioned.
So, what’s the solution?
The solution may be a little more straightforward than expected. It lies in the trusted and respected approach of management by objectives.
Any problems of flexibility are removed when the leaders and managers of a company:
• have a clear understanding of what needs to be achieved
• translate this understanding into SMART objectives for all of their people
• hold their people to account for their objectives.
And how can this be achieved? Well, most people, like most companies, are really only interested in outcomes. They don’t want to be in the office for long hours, just to be seen to be ‘committed’. They want to be judged and rewarded based on what they produce and deliver. Happily, management by objectives means everyone has a very clear view of what they need to achieve and by which timescales.
Of course, people need to be sensible. If they need to work as a team in order to achieve an objective, they’ll need to come in to the office to meet with colleagues. Ensure that your people understand that not all roles have the same flexibility at all times. This will help to reduce any resentment.
Similarly, a manager need not worry about the draw of distractions at home. As long as objectives are being met, there isn’t a problem. If they aren’t being met, though, a manager should deal with under-performance in a strong and fair way.
Certainly there are some additional costs (such as providing people with the technology for remote working). However, when one looks at the benefits for getting it right, it certainly makes sense. You’ll be able to enjoy:
• an increase in productivity (by working effective hours, avoiding commuting, feeling fresh and being well-intentioned to one’s employer thanks to the trust shown in offering flexibility)
• an increased retention rate (from a healthy work-life balance and energised environment)
• easier recruitment (by offering a great place to work)
• more motivated people (who are being measured on outcome, not face-time in the office. And, who are being trusted).
There may be some perceived barriers to smart working, but these are far out-weighed by the rewards. Resistant employers may need to rethink their attitudes.
As recognised by American politician, Madeleine M. Kunin, “to make flexibility work, it is not only necessary to change our attitude about who is a good worker and who is not, but we have to train managers at all levels to recognise the difference between the number of hours worked and the quality of work produced”. It’s the way the world is moving and, if you’re not embracing it, the world may well leave you behind.