When COVID-19 struck in Wuhan back in December 2019, no one could have forseen the global impact it would have on almost every aspect of our lives. One change was the rapid introduction of working from home to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Suddenly, huge swathes of the world population found their workplace shift from an office to a kitchen table overnight, turning flexible working from a luxury into more of an unwelcome surprise. Poor internet connections, unsupportive chairs and children running into the background of video calls became common as we all settled into a new rhythm of working life.
Flexible working means working anytime, anywhere, with a focus on output rather than hours. This approach can increase focus and efficiency,1 as well as providing employees with a better work-life balance. Indeed, our wellbeing survey conducted during COVID-19 has shown that the virus has positively impacted people's ability to maintain a nutritious diet (56% of respondents), do physical activity (76% of respondents) and get high quality sleep (56% of respondents).
The benefits aren’t only for employees, however: although often overlooked, flexible working does yield considerable rewards for businesses. Facilitating flexibility is in the best interests of business leaders; employees who work flexibly are more productive, as well as healthier and happier, meaning they take less sick leave and are less prone to absenteeism.2
As remote working has become normalised, leaders have had to adapt to leading remote teams, maintaining engagement and motivation virtually, and looking after wellbeing amidst a pandemic. But, as infection rates fall and we are afforded a glimpse of the pre-COVID lifestyle, many are suggesting that flexible working is here to stay. Twitter has said it will allow it's staff to work from home for as long as they like, and many are following suit. But how can business leaders make this drastic shift toward flexible working a lasting success?
This blog aims to relieve these worries by providing clear steps to implementing flexible working, so that it successfully delivers the desired benefits. Our research and interviews with colleagues have determined four steps business leaders can take to maximise the success of flexible working as we all discover what the 'new normal' will entail.
1. Put trust at the forefront of your leadership
Instilling trust within virtual teams is essential to ensuring flexible working is a benefit, and not a cost, to efficiency: leaders must believe that their team can be equally efficient at meeting their deadlines away from the office.
The control flexible working affords employees demands that leaders afford them enough trust to relinquish daily management. Being able to determine one’s working hours and location means employees feel they are accomplishing their job on their own terms, which is beneficial to their productivity and commitment. Although this may seem daunting as a leader, it is paramount to the success of flexible working.
The theory of planned behaviour in psychology suggests that when people have higher perceived control over a behaviour (here, it would be their work), their intentions and attitudes towards that behaviour are better.5 Flexible working, therefore, motivates and engages employees more than traditional work otherwise would.
When employees feel trusted by their leaders, they repay that trust by performing as well or better than they would in the office.6 This, alongside actively building trust into virtual teams, means that leaders can confidently deploy flexible working without concern that efficiency will be compromised.
Action: Agree with your employees what output you expect of them, and what support they can expect from you. The aim should be that, wherever an employee is working, they understand their goals and targets, and feel trusted to meet them using the hours and location they see fit.
2. Change attitudes towards flexible working
Challenging the belief that if people aren’t working in the office from 9-5, they aren’t working as hard, is crucial to the success of flexible working.
Natalie, Consultant Director, shares the challenges she faced when she decided to adopt a more fluid approach to working between the office and home:
“I still sometimes feel guilty leaving ‘early’, but I think that’s more about me than the business – it’s a hangover from an outdated presenteeism mindset.”
Changing a historic narrative around work habits is no small feat. The change needed for flexible working to be successful, however, doesn’t have to be complex. Small changes can make a big impact. Research indicates that, in a meeting of three people, the most emotionally expressive person’s mood will be transmitted to the two others. In the same way, leaders can challenge attitudes towards flexible working by positively promoting it.
Action: Openly expressing positivity about flexible working can start changing beliefs. Instilling this positivity long term involves providing employees with a clear understanding of the strategic thinking behind the introduction of flexible working. This could be done by organising a team meeting on the subject and explaining the benefits each team member can gain from flexible working to promote positive momentum around the topic.
3. Shift focus to the purpose
Flexible working doesn’t just require a shift in behaviours – it necessitates a shift in mentality. As the focus for employees moves from hours worked to output achieved, the focus for leaders should shift from raw financial gain to a broader vision of the purpose of the organisation.
This purpose may have shifted due to COVID-19, with perfume brands such as Dior and Givenchy shifting their daily mission from making people smell nice to keeping hands clean as they used their production lines to make hand sanitiser. If your organisation has changed it's purpose during COVID-19, flexible working can be positioned as a key part of this new norm.
Leaders can communicate their view of the company’s purpose as a way to galvanise employees around shared goals and ambition. If employees are engaged and have shared aspirations in their work, the team will support and encourage one another. This has the potential to dispel any judgement or scepticism around colleagues adopting flexible working, and instead turn it into a positive way people are optimising their productivity.
Action: Communicate your vision of the organisation’s purpose. If you can galvanise your team around a shared motivation, then the focus will shift from clocking hours to building something exciting, together.
4. Don't underestimate the power of organisational culture
The benefits of flexible working don’t mean you should just up sticks and sell your office, however. The positive effects of employees sharing a workspace are considerable, and even the most pro-flexibility leaders should strive to make the office a place where employees want to be.
Staff attitudes towards flexible working can closely be linked to the organisational culture within the workplace. If the culture is one which nurtures curiosity, encourages collaboration and breeds authentic relationships, employees will feel motivated to spend time in the office. If, on the other hand, the workplace is a hub of one-upmanship, judgement and silos, there is a higher risk of flexible working turning into an excuse for employees to isolate themselves.
Action:Role model the behaviours and values you wish your organisation to embody. For example, at Lane4 one of our values is being people champions. Our Managing Director, Adrian Moorhouse, role-models this by meeting with all new employees and giving them time to introduce themselves, ask him any questions and get to know him. By role-modelling the behaviour you wish your employees to display, you will, over time, nurture an organisational culture that motivates people to be in the office, and deliver high results wherever they “log-on”.
Whether you like it or loathe it, flexible working is now part of working life. An ability and a willingness to offer it as a benefit is an increasingly crucial part of any organisation’s employer value proposition, but flexible working isn’t just a talent acquisition consideration. As this blog series has shown, evidence is growing that productivity and output are improved, not diminished, by avoiding a rigid, “clocking in” culture.
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If you want to change your culture to enable flexible working, or need help building trust into your organisation, find out more here.