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Understanding Flexible Work

Taking the first steps, and taking others with you


Incomprehension. Resistance. Are people not biting when you bring up the idea of flexible work? Or maybe they're biting too hard...like biting your head off. It happens.

In this article we outline how to take people gently and positively up the learning curve of new ways of working, outlining some of the hurdles and the pitfalls on the way and how to overcome them.

Starting with the benefits

The first step to helping people understand flexible work is to outline the benefits. Increasing flexibility is all about improving the way the organisation works: using property and IT more effectively, enabling staff to work more effectively, enabling staff to live more balanced lives, and reducing wasteful unnecessary travel and resource consumption

Coming in from the right angle

It may sound too good to be true. Are sceptics going to buy that?

For organisations and individuals within organisations, there are likely to be priorities and agendas. People are more likely to identify with approaches that help resolve issues they face. For example, an organisation may have trouble recruiting or retaining staff for data processing and customer service roles. Could flexible working hours, or term-time working, and/or some home based working help out with this?

Or again, someone may have been tasked to promote travel-to-work initiatives. They've done well so far with bus-based initiatives and the bike brigade - but isn't there something more? Flexible work options may not seriously have crossed their horizons - or more likely, they've read something but have so far found it hard to see the relevance, or don't know how to proceed.

Finance managers always like to reduce costs. The HR manager wants better work-life balance. The IT manager wants to buy more kit, and for ICT to be used more effectively.

Once people start to see how flexible work relates to their concerns, progress can be made. But there are still likely to be a number of barriers to overcome.

Overcoming stereotypes

People often have preconceptions about flexible work and the people who do it. Isn't it for women with families? - in their experience flexible hours options seem to apply mostly for women, as does home-based work.

Flexible hours schemes are, of course, for everyone. If uptake is frequently by women with caring responsibilities, maybe it's time for men to do more of the caring. In fact, ICT-enabled home-based working is so far dominated by the male of the species, contrary to expectations.

Media images of "telework" are dominated by the romantic fiction of full-time home-based freelancers in remote crofts, surrounded by blissfully happy children and animals. A journalist's nirvana, perhaps, but a workstyle that rarely surfaces in reality.

Discussions of telework often founder on all the problems that are assumed to accrue from full-time remote work: isolation, lack of supervision, lack of career opportunities, etc. But if the employee is coming in 3 or 4 days per week on average, or has regular contact with managers and colleagues at varying locations, contact and integration should not be a problem.

Limited horizons

People often think in terms of what they know. If the experience of flexitime is having core hours of 10 till 4 with optional earlier or later starts, the vision of extending flexible work may be limited to changing the hours or clocking in system.

If tradition is hiring casual labour, putting people on permanent contracts may seem out of the question. But an annualised hours approach may be the ideal solution to deal with both staffing problems and varying workloads.

If staff are often late because of commuting problems, working at home may not spring to mind as a solution if the usual approach has been to shout at them.

In all these cases habitual modes of thought stand in the way of more effective ways of working. Awareness raising is the vital first step to moving forward.

Management incomprehension

People always blame managers. In surveys, people often identify managers, senior managers, or "other managers", as obstacles to more flexible working.

Managers have usually reached senior positions by doing things in a certain way, and what they have done has been, apparently, successful. Sometimes they are at a loss to understand why flexible working should be introduced, or if they see the theoretical benefits they can't see how it would work in practice.

If line-of-sight management has been the tried and tested method, sending one's staff to the four corners of the earth may seem an odd way of being efficient. Management based on evaluating output may also be challenging.

Having reached dizzy management heights with a dictaphone and a "renaissance woman" secretary, tackling new technologies may seem a step too far, and simply spur dreams of early retirement.

Security in the comfort zone

Incomprehension, however, may be only one reason for resistance to change. Many people, not only managers, are comfortable with the way things are done.

Every existing practice, from the office layout to spending 4 hours a day on the M25, will find its champion. At the end of the day, some people may never be persuaded. If that is the case, it is important to build support amongst the majority, and gather compelling evidence of the need for change.

Employee and trade union concerns

A few years back it was commonplace in labour circles to associate flexibility with insecurity. Flexibility was seen as providing flexible labour for companies, based on making the employee's position more tenuous.

This has largely changed with the development of the Work-Life Balance movement. Unions and other employee organisations tend now to see the relevance of flexible work in this context, and are sometimes leading advocates of it.

It is vital to involve employees and their representatives directly in developing flexible work programmes, not least in the awareness raising and consultation processes.

Technophobia

Fear of technology, or unfamiliarity with it, can be off-putting when dealing with Information Age flexible working. Awareness-raising needs to reassure that it's not all about technology. Using technology is part of the process, but one doesn't need a degree in computing. Or even a GCSE.

There are training and support issues - these will usually be addressed in detail once the project is further developed. But it's worth reassuring the technophobes at a early stage that valuable skills development is part of the package.

Mapping out the programme

A key part of awareness-raising involves mapping out the coming programme - of data gathering, consultation, planning and pilots. It's best to avoid surprises!

And finally, awareness raising isn't confined to a one-off event at the start: it should extend throughout any implementation programme, through continuous feedback, consultation and dialogue.

 

This article looks at the issues involved in raising awareness about flexible work - the necessary first step before setting off on flexible work programmes.

Without such awareness raising, flexible work programmes are quickly going to run into trouble, and be the subject of rumour and resistance. For a sideways look at this, see our article 12 Ways to Screw Up a Flexible Work Project.

If you want to avoid that, and get on the right track, you may find a Flexibility awareness-raising seminar useful.

Contact Bob Crichton for details:

Tel: +44 (0)1223 264485 or contact him by email.

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