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The delights and discomforts of flexible working

Ten years ago, work wasn’t just a thing we did. It was a physical place that we were tied to for an agreed period. But today’s modern way of living is prompting us all to reframe the role work plays in our lives.

Longer life expectancy means that most of us will be working far beyond today’s average retirement age. The climate crisis is making us think about the carbon footprint of long commutes. Responsibilities for children, elderly parents, and our own health are often all consuming. And what about the emergence of passion projects and side hustles that occupy what remains of our time, energy and attention?

Now, more than ever, many people seek out roles that help them to strike a better balance between the personal and the professional. So, if employers want to continue to attract and retain the best possible talent, it’s time for the rules of work to be radically rewritten.

And flexible working could be the answer. The movement, supported in the UK by campaigners like Anna Whitehouse, founder of Mother Pukka, and organisations like Time Wise, is gathering unprecedented support.

But are companies really prepared for the seismic shift a new way of working will bring, or are they simply paying lip service to a hot topic that is dominating the media, and the latest round of political manifestos?

Here’s our take on the flex revolution. And, full disclosure, as a team who work flexibly and advise companies on creating strong cultures and fulfilling work environments, we’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly.

The upside: In short, it makes good business sense.

Productivity and freedom

True autonomy over when and where we work can lead to better productivity. Letting people choose the way they juggle personal and professional responsibilities is liberating. It drives loyalty and can improve output – and happiness. Check out this study if you’re a data fiend, and want the download.

A wider talent pool

Offering flexibility is a great way to attract and retain the best and brightest to your business. It can also improve equality in the workplace too, opening the door to superstar candidates who may previously have been marginalised by empowering them to shape the right conditions to do their best work and have an impact.

Brand advocacy  

Word spreads quickly. Get your flexible working offer right and your people will start shouting about your organisation to their networks. Soon, you’ll have talent knocking on your door, and you can bank the cash you’d usually have to spend on recruiter fees to find them.

The downside: Let’s be honest, making flexible working work in practice isn’t easy.

Beating the stereotype

Flexible working requires a leap of faith and a whole heap of trust from all parties. Sadly, the outdated notion that those that work flexibly are work shy, still exists. So, we need to create an environment where its commercial value is clear. Leaders and managers alike need to go above and beyond to facilitate this new way of working, empowering their team to work differently while instilling confidence.

Avoiding isolation

Mental health is – and should always be – a priority. Working remotely or flexibly can be lonely, and the value of community and collaboration is all the more appreciated. Having the right digital tools for dialogue and collaboration is a non-negotiable. But, more than that, companies also need to go out of their way to create opportunities for face-to-face interaction. We’re all human after all.

Setting boundaries

With the boundary between our private and public lives increasingly blurred, discipline and focus are needed to get the job done. Shaping an effective flexible working routine takes time and dedication – and it looks different for everyone. Finding the right environment for work for the individual helps exponentially.

The magic formula?

Companies need to start by creating the right conditions for people to succeed. We need to think considerately about job design and have a set of practical solutions to help people do amazing work, wherever and whenever they want to work. You could think big by removing the concept of time from work altogether or invest in technology that helps people work differently.

There should also be a support system in place from the get-go - building a sense of community so that people feel connected wherever they are should be a priority. And the culture should support flexible working – it’s a myth that you can’t create a strong culture when your team works remotely. Leaders can help by discouraging stubborn outdated working practices, instead encouraging open, honest and transparent conversations about flex arrangements. This helps to maintain trust while empowering people to work in a way that suits their strengths and counteracts their weaknesses, enabling them to contribute to the business’ success.  

Whatever your take on the flex movement, the demand for flexible working patterns is on the up. And while the subject may not be a new one, the big difference is that, today, most leaders are finally listening.

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