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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters



Employment Today Magazine

Flexible working—Panacea or oxymoron?

Organisations and workers increasingly understand the benefits of flexible working, and the technology and infrastructure to make it happen are almost there, so what’s the handbrake? Tim Bentley looks at how to implement a new way of working.

Flexible working has been lauded as the answer to the intractable problems of worker productivity in New Zealand—traffic congestion in our major cities, work-life balance for busy working parents, worker attraction and retention, organisational resilience, environmental sustainability, and, for all I know, the Black Caps top order batting! So, given its apparent advantages, why is it that we are not embracing this new way of working to the extent many futurists and organisational scholars have predicted?

As a scholar of work and organisation, I have closely followed the debate internationally on the future of work and new ways of working, and have led a number of studies here in New Zealand that sought to examine the extent, nature and benefits of distributed forms of working such as flexible working. This work has also given me the opportunity to observe the policy making and practice changes of a number of major New Zealand organisations in the area of flexible working.

What is clear to me from this experience is that there is a real recognition among top managers that flexible working is beneficial and must be implemented as widely as possible, and yet many are struggling with how to best implement such practices across their organisations.

It is also very clear that flexible working is extremely popular with workers, with various studies showing that it is not only our digital natives who want to change how they work, where they work and when, but others too—notably older workers who appear to value flexibility and work-life balance over and above traditional benefits such as compensation.

Importantly, industry is really beginning to confront the flexibility issue and is looking to front-foot new ways of working rather than simply reacting to these changes. Indeed, feedback from a presentation I gave at a recent large New Zealand infrastructure conference confirmed my opinion that top managers want to introduce more flexibility to realise the benefits such initiatives provide, but the struggle for many is how to engage organisational members with the idea that flexibility can be win-win for organisations and workers.

EVIDENCE FOR THE EXTENT OF FLEXIBLE WORKING—THERE’S A LOT OF IT ABOUT!

My research over recent years has sought to understand the extent to which organisations and individual knowledge workers have engaged with flexible working, and remote working in particular. From this research it is clear to me that there is an increasing trend of working remotely in New Zealand—largely from home, but also from co-working centres and digital work hubs. Moreover, flexible working is extremely popular with employees and is becoming a major attraction and retention issue for organisations wanting the best talent.

The Trans-Tasman Telework Survey undertaken by the NZ Work Research Institute in 2013 found that, of 1800 staff across 50 Australian and New Zealand organisations, 89 percent worked remotely at least sometime during the working week. In the New Zealand portion of the sample, 35 percent spent between one and seven hours working away from the office per week, 38 percent spent eight hours or more, with only 16 percent of these working remotely for more than three days per week.

These figures mean that within these organisations, at least, over 50 percent of knowledge workers worked from home at least one day per week, suggesting there is a real shift in the extent of mobile working.

Employees who worked flexibly rated the experience highly, with nearly three-quarters believing flexible working had a favourable influence on their overall job attitude, and fitted well with the way they liked to work. The large majority also felt flexible work did not interfere with coordination of work with co-workers. What’s more, the study found flexible workers to be more productive, from the perspective of both workers and their line managers, to have greater wellbeing, and to be more likely to remain with their organisation!

Those workers who faired best in these outcomes areas were so-called hybrid-flexible workers, those who worked remotely one to three days per week.

These findings should be considered in the light of those from a subsequent study that indicated that 17 percent of Auckland-based knowledge workers employed in the 62 organisations represented by the study (over 39,000) currently work remotely one or more days per week. Extrapolating this figure to the total Auckland working population, it is estimated that some 67,100 workers currently work remotely one or more days per week.

We also obtained projections of future remote working within the study organisations, concluding that, by 2020, over one-third of Auckland-based knowledge workers (estimated at over 134,000) will work in a flexible work arrangement one or more days per week. More importantly, we believe that additional growth through advancing technology, growth in co-working spaces, and regional development efforts, will inflate this figure considerably. So, given the apparent escalation in flexible working and its popularity with workers, how do we move this to the next level: full uptake of hybrid-flexible working among New Zealand’s knowledge workers?

The technology and infrastructure is almost there (OK, not for all, but we are not too far away), organisations and workers increasingly understand the benefits, so what’s the handbrake? While there are many issues that organisations need to grapple with, trust (or the lack of) is the number one barrier where there is a strategy to roll out an effective flexible working programme.

A MATTER OF TRUST

Trust—a small word, but one with massive implications for the effective implementation of new ways of working. Our studies have found “allowing” staff to work remotely involves a new mind-set for line managers and supervisors, and a new way to think about performance—with the focus on outputs (what is produced) rather than inputs (time spent at our desks). Importantly, managers need to start thinking about flexible working as a legitimate and potentially highly effective work option rather than a perk.

Trust, it seems, does not come easily to managers who have always worked a certain way—closely monitoring their staff and the time they spend at their desks or in the workplace. Yet, we should not be surprised or pour criticism upon these folk as the desire to stay with traditional working practices is an artefact of the strong cultures we build within our organisations—and, in some cases, the result of failed attempts to “let” people work remotely in the past. If we wish to break down such cultures, we must first present a new vision and a way to enact it within our workplaces.

While many organisations struggle with trust and give it as a reason for not providing flexible working opportunities for their staff, our findings from workplaces where remote work had been widely implemented suggest that managers are confident in the productivity of their remote staff and do not tend to monitor their working time as long as planned work is produced to time and quality.

To illustrate this point, a large proportion of respondents to the trans-Tasman Telework Survey strongly agreed or agreed with the statement: “My manager doesn’t think I slack off when I telework” (64 percent). Similarly, most agreed or strongly agreed that: “Overall, my manager trusts me to be productive while teleworking” (70 percent).

When we asked the line managers of these workers we got a similar response, and most noted that they do not use technology to monitor their remote staff.

So, how should organisations manage this issue of trust and develop a culture supportive of flexible working? As noted above, trust is a barrier to the implementation of flexible working, but the experience of organisations that take this step is that managers trust their remote staff and staff respond with strong productivity and commitment to the organisation.

Flexible working operates best in organisational cultures that value employee empowerment and trust. Senior managers therefore need to emphasise cultural values that are supportive of flexible working and a shift in mind-set towards an outputs-based culture. This may involve breaking down a traditional culture of managing by presence and of “being at work and being seen”.

Senior managers also have a role to play in overcoming any resistance on the part of individual line managers, whose attitudes and management style will have a major impact on the ability of employees to work flexibly. Promoting flexible working within an organisation can take place through the organisation’s internal communication channels, roadshows and training workshops, and through role modelling of flexible working by senior managers.

Line managers need to develop capabilities and strategies that support effective flexible working. Unfortunately, many organisations do not provide training opportunities for managers in this area, often relying instead on general management training or individual managers’ experience of managing flexible workers—which, as noted above, may not have been very positive.

Other sources of support that can be drawn on by managers of flexible workers include organisational guidelines, advice from HR or senior management, and mutual coaching from other line managers. As flexible working arrangements become more prevalent, and organisational forms begin to change, so does the need for HR leaders to develop people and practices better suited for the new world of work.

So, the case for flexible working is that it provides many benefits for both workers and their organisations—a real win-win opportunity! Why wouldn’t our top managers want to reduce their footprint in the central city, reduce their parking needs, attract and retain good staff, build resilience into their systems and cultures, meet the flexibility needs of young workers and even older workers, and make a tangible difference to their sustainability goals?

Yes there are challenges. If the culture of an organisation is so strongly aligned to traditional forms of working that work is much more about the place (noun) than the activity (verb), then what to do? The best advice I can give is to start small. Do a small, well-supported, trial in one of the business units or departments. Make the business case as the benefits of this trial initiative are realised.

Regardless, the future of work is here, and new ways of working are upon us, and good organisations will get ahead of the game rather than waiting for the tidal wave of change to sweep them along to who knows where!

TIM BENTLEY is a professor of Work and Organistion at Massey University’s School of Management and a founding member of Massey’s Healthy Work Group.

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