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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.