22 Feb 2017 Employers should embrace flexible working

Flexible working is a low-cost way of keeping or rewarding employees when salary budgets are tight

By Fiona Mullen

Many years ago, I used to take a 10-minute walk to Fulham Broadway underground station in south-west London, wait ages for the Wimbledon Line, change at Earls Court, take the District Line to Tower Hill and walk another five minutes to Tower Gateway. I would wait another 10 minutes for a brand new driverless Docklands Light Railway train that broke down more days than it did not.

The whole journey to my copy-editing job took about an hour and a half. It did have some advantages. It made me fit without having to try, and I was able to do most of my homework for a night-course during the journey.

Today, my commute lasts the time it takes me to bring a cup of tea from the kitchen to the study. Although I have to work harder to be fit or learn something new, I would not exchange this for the world. Indeed, I walked away from very well-paid job to get back to it.

Flexible working is a low-cost way of keeping or rewarding employees when salary budgets are tight. Yet few companies feel comfortable enough to take the leap, despite the recorded advantages.


The business case

A survey published in 2012 by the UK-based Employers group in Workplace Flexibility (EWF) found that businesses implementing flexible working enjoyed a number of benefits.

These included higher employee productivity as the focus shifts to performance rather than presence; greater competitiveness through “more fluid network-based structures”; and a reduction in office-space costs.

On the employee side, the benefits included greater engagement and motivation, higher retention rates and more opportunities for women.


The barriers

Why do so many companies insist on presence in the office? One of the key barriers identified by the report was lack of senior sponsorship. “Within the EWF, the most commonly cited barriers were cultural in nature”, the report said, largely because they have not been presented with the business case.

Another barrier was the ‘presenteeism’ expectations of managers, where “their desire to persistently observe the actions of their teams enforces a culture of process and presenteeism that restricts employee flexibility”.

To get round this, they recommend that managers “trust employees to work when they are not in view, and measure outputs over inputs”.

Managers also need to give guidance and support for those working out of the office, to ensure that reduced visibility does not affect career prospects.

The final barrier cited is a risk-averse culture. Yet a risk-averse culture stifles innovation, agility and therefore damages competitiveness. The report recommends trying out pilot projects to test the ground and refine processes.

I would add another barrier for Cyprus, namely lack of investment in the technology that improves teleworking, such as decent video-conferencing software for frequent online meetings, messaging software so that groups can talk without clogging up their email inboxes, and virtual private networks (VPN) that allow you to log in securely from anywhere.