Encouraging news about flexible working arrived on 27 March, with the publication of a new report from the International Workplace Group (IWG).
Compiled from a survey of 15,000 businesspeople around the world, Welcome to Generation Flex – the Employee Power Shift  notes that 62% of companies have in place some form of flexible working policy, and more than half of employees are working outside of their primary headquarters for at least two-and-a-half days per week.
However, it points out: “Globally, 60% of businesspeople still report that changing a long-standing non-flexible working culture is an obstacle to introducing flexible working, with business leaders in Spain, Argentina, Mexico, South Korea and Italy particularly highlighting this issue. A fear of how company culture could be impacted and lack of understanding of the benefits is highlighted by two out of five respondents.”
It goes on: “Far too many businesses are in fact still falling short of providing the cornerstone requirements for successful flexible working, such as providing access to a conducive work environment or the right tools for the job, and are putting increased pressure on employees to work professionally in non-professional environments.”
The report adds: “Businesses looking to grow, expand nationally or internationally and become more agile need to ensure employees and management are aligned on a flexible working approach: what it means for their different workers, what they need to provide and how best to establish a flexible working culture for all-round maximum gains.”
Reflecting on the report in a column at Forbes,  virtual-operations consultant Laurel Farrer ponders what is holding firms back from adopting flexible working mindsets, and says: “One word: Yahoo.” She explains: “In 2013, CEO Marissa Mayer infamously eliminated Yahoo’s telecommuting policy and required all offsite employees to relocated to company facilities. And Yahoo isn’t the only one. Other prestigious brands like IBM and Hewlett-Packard have also called their remote employees back into the office, all citing an increase in productivity and innovation since the changes.”
However, she notes: “Thankfully, we have thought leaders who prove that successful and sustainable virtual operational models are not only possible, but they are also thriving. Amazon, Dell, Apple, Microsoft, and Hilton are all proudly employing virtual workers in various departments. Even more impressive are companies like Automattic and InVision that both have over 700 employees, $1 billion value (each), nearly-perfect employer ratings, and zero offices.”
What should firms that have been hesitant to explore flexible working do to become the Dells, Automattics and InVisions of tomorrow?
Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “We at the Institute have campaigned for so long for flexible working, and have researched the topic extensively – our report Goodbye Nine to Five, on the benefits of distributed teams, came out back in 2015. So it’s a subject that we’ve had on our radar for a long time. It has also been a useful adjunct to the work that we’ve done on inclusivity in the workforce, in terms of how flexible working enables carers to combine their professional lives with their caring responsibilities.
“What really stands out from the work we have done in this field is that flexible working has an almost universal appeal. Even if relates just to the location in which the work is done, we’ve found that the autonomy that it grants employees – together with a sense of control over their working days – contributes a great deal to healthy work-life balance. Now, that’s not to detract from the fact that there are certain companies, and even whole professions, that require staff to be present in a specific, geographical location at the same time. But I would say that there will be opportunities for flexible working in the majority of businesses – if they are sufficiently thoughtful and creative about how they implement the policy.”
Cooper notes: “It’s really important for organisations to bear in mind that flexible working is not merely about flexible worker(s). It’s actually about how you interrelate with people who are working in dispersed locations, or different time zones. One of the biggest mistakes that seems to crop up time and time again on this front is linked to communication. It’s easy to fall into a mentality of, ‘Oh, I can’t see this person in front of me and talk to them face to face, so I’ll just ping them an email.’
“Well, we all know that one-way communication is simply no substitute for a two-way method. You have no idea how it’s being received. There are no cues in the course of the interaction telling you how it’s going down – particularly if the email is some sort of giant screed. Even among reasonably skilled writers, people’s ability to craft an email that expresses everything they want to get across in a tactful way, with no scope for tweaks or adjustments, will vary considerably. So that’s just one example of a lack of adaptation to the type of interaction that flexible working demands.”
With that in mind, Cooper advises: “The first things for an organisation to consider are: ‘How can we carry on communicating as well as if we were co-located? How do we ensure that we are not relying upon one-way communication tools when we know that two-way methods are better? And how are we going to avoid the emergence of a hierarchy between flexible staff and those working to more traditional arrangements?’ If people who are based in the office have higher access to informal communication with senior staff, or are the first to hear pieces of important organisational news – often informally and verbally – then you will end up with two sets of people receiving that information in two, different ways.”
She adds: “These issues are not easily solved, and businesses need to think about them very carefully. It’s not a problem with the flexible workers, or even the manager of those workers – it’s a companywide problem. If we go back to the themes of our Manchester United blog from earlier this week, we want our people to be working towards the same goals. How we create a culture where everyone understands their role, and their importance within it, is absolutely vital to delivering high levels of performance.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s report Goodbye Nine to Five