I think it’s fair to say the ability to work flexibly, largely as a result of changes to societal attitudes and enabled by better technology, has improved and is continuing to do so however I think it is also apparent that we have some way to go until the ability to work flexibly is where it should be.
Personally, I’m fortunate at this point in my life because I’ve got my act together in this regard. With a young child who is currently (but not for much longer) in part-time school and as one of two parents who both work full time, I needed a flexible working arrangement with my employer to accommodate, well, my life and the demands upon it/me.
I describe myself as ‘lucky’ because I was really well supported by my employer when I needed to discuss a more flexible working arrangement (which for me means working from home one day per week) and the job that I have means that it was a very easy transition for me, my team and my colleagues. If anything, I became more productive and forged a stronger and more positive psychological contract with my business as a result. In order to make it work, we both had to be flexible about being flexible, a term I’ve borrowed from this brilliant FT article I read recently on this subject.
I describe myself as lucky because I know thats not the case for many others. To use terminology borrowed from our friends in the world of employment law, the barriers for working flexibly are both explicit and implied.
Some jobs and businesses aren’t in that place yet where they can easily accommodate a more flexible approach to work, and I get that this is a barrier that needs focus. I get that for some businesses, flexible working is simply not a possibility for many jobs where work processes dictate the structure of the employee driving that particular piece of work.
But I am also acutely aware of jobs and businesses in which it would be relatively easy to adopt a more flexible approach to work but cultural attitudes have formed barriers that stifle the progress needed.
All too often, people change jobs and change hours to find the flexibility they need, often leaving behind workplaces that they’ve loved, jobs that they’ve become really excellent at, and colleagues whom have become like family, because of the fact that flexibility does not appear accessible to them within that workplace due to the perceived cultural attitude towards working this way. I think this is quite sad.
In some cases, these employees haven’t even broached the subject of working flexibly with their managers because the cultural strength of opinion towards flexible working within that particular business, is so prevalent and intimidating. Flexible working in these businesses is perceived as so difficult to penetrate that it would be easier to run through the shield of Wakanda. This helps no-one.
In HR, we have an important role to play in this area. When a manager seeks our advice to discuss a request they’ve received from one of their team members to work flexibly, the default position of referring to (or considering) the appropriate rights and legislation should become secondary, with the primary discussion point focusing on how the request can be made to work, without stopping at the first hurdle and then outlining the process to follow to formally turn the request down, which sadly I am sure is usually the case for many people.
If the change in attitude towards flexible working within your organisation doesn’t come from the top, then through applying some bravery, conducting some prior-preparation and having the evidence at hand, it should come from us within our field.
Sometimes this will mean having really difficult conversations, having an unpopular viewpoint but standing firm, maintaining a dogged and tenacious approach to influencing others, and remembering the positive impact that creating a flexible working environment can have for many employees. It can mean encouraging senior leaders to set an example, and to break traditional mindsets around job sharing at executive level, and leaving on time for instance.
And if the ‘it’s the right thing to do’ argument isn’t working during that process, the business case of increasing morale, productivity, avoiding unnecessary turnover and high recruitment costs, paints a compelling case in most organisations in itself.
Influencing positive attitudes to flexible working where being flexible is a clear possibility, can mean taking the debate by the scruff of the neck, and not shying away from the hard conversation. And in those cases, whilst it might not be the easy thing to do, it is the right thing to do, and we need to show people that. After all, only doing the easy stuff all the time, is no fun at all.