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‘Flexible Working’ often just buzzword jargon for many companies

23 March 2016

“Flexible Working” -  What does it actually mean? Guest blogger, John Read, Founder-Director of ReadDillon Ltd and Executive Director of Clean Up Britain CIC takes a look at perceptions around Flexible Working.


Sadly, the term ‘flexible working’ has come to mean many things and nothing.

It’s a term that holds up a halcyon dream of working life ‘flexibly’ crafted around personal commitments, offering the best of both worlds.

In my experience, and talking with friends and former colleagues, the reality is often very different. Many organisations find it difficult to countenance that ‘flexible working’ may mean employees working from home and not being present in the office – where they can be seen and overseen. This is surely an outdated attitude and implies a lack of trust between employer and employee. Given the long and arduous journeys many employees have to make to and from their workplace, there is a strong argument for saying that employees are much more likely to be more productive without having to endure ‘commuter hell’ for three or four hours every day.

There are, of course, often good reasons why staff need to be physically located in an office – not everything can be done ‘remotely’ and over conference calls. It’s important to build a strong sense of team spirit and empathy with colleagues, and this is one thing that social media will never properly do. Equally, however, there are many occasions when staff could work quite happily from home or even in their local Costa Coffee shop. The advent of new technology should be an emancipating process that enables ‘flexible’ working in a way previous generations could only dream of.

But still too many (large) companies (in particular) seem to be culturally resistant to the notion of ‘flexible working. It’s not about old-style ‘flexi-time’, hot-desking or going home an hour earlier. It’s about showing confidence and trust in your staff that they will get on with their job and do it well, regardless of whether they’re sitting in a central London office block or holed-up in the Cotswolds. A large number of companies seem not to have fully embraced this concept.

By doing this, those very same companies that often complain about a lack of skilled and experienced staff, are missing out on thousands of skilled women in their 30s and 40s who have young kids, and who very often want to get back into the workplace, but cannot possibly spend hours trudging into a city centre and being the victims of an old-style ‘presenteeism’ culture. Not only are these companies missing out, but so too is ‘UK plc’. Losing skilled and motivated female staff is a significant cost to the economy. You only have to look at the number of female doctors who cost the NHS at least £500,000 per person to train, but often end-up working only part-time and tend to retire early.

In other professions, many women with young children desperately want to return to work, and have a great deal to offer employees – arguably, they are more motivated, better at dealing with clients, and less prone to being involved in parochial office politics than most men. Of course, this is a (dangerous) generalisation, but it has certainly been my observation over 25 years working in consultancies and in-house roles.

The message is clear: too many companies are paying lip-service only to the concept of ‘flexible working’. When push comes to shove, they would much rather have their staff in the office, and make this abundantly clear. Seemingly, this is due to a combination of being cultural Luddites, lack of trust and what might be termed ‘centralist controlling syndrome’. They need to get over it, and fully embrace ‘flexible working’ which might be more to their taste than they imagine… if only they can find the courage to embrace this positive change, and not cling to outdated notions of what the workplace should look like.