What needs to change for flexible work to work?
May 30, 2019

The future of work across all sectors will change the traditional outlook on workplace structure and expectations.

Sally Dorsett and David Schmidtchen recently presented at the Flexible and Agile Working Conference. They challenged the audience, ‘What if flexible work was business as usual?’

Considering flexible work to be out of the norm often finds employees who do not work full time business hours to feel the need to minimise their work contributions or explain their situation.

“There is no need to justify or explain your work situation, it just is. Nor should those working flexibly feel less than others in the contribution they are making. That sentiment is also built into the way flexible work is explained,” said Dorsett.

This is often revealed in language choice. The obligation workplaces feel to justify implementing flexible work options, and the rhetoric chosen often serves to undermine the original objective.

For example, it is not uncommon to hear ‘it supports diversity’ or ‘it is a strategy to attract and retain women’. Flexible work is good for all those reasons, but the main reason is that it improves the adaptability, capability, and performance of the organisation.

“We seem to position flexible work as a strategy to be justified or to explain why we are implementing flexible work. In asking what flexible work would look like as business-as-usual, we wanted to get ahead of where we are today and look back at what needs to change,” said Dorsett

Speakers at the Flexible and Agile Workforce Conference offered insights into implementing flexible work in different industries and sectors. Offering personal experiences, they shared lessons on what it takes to successfully job share in senior positions, how to support the transition into flexibility, and how to maintain a sense of community throughout.

Common themes and lessons included:

  • The need to constantly challenge existing assumptions about how work is done
  • The need to genuinely engage the workforce to collaborate in the designing and implementation
  • It is not necessary to have all the answers up front
  • Speed is important in implementation
  • There is no one-size-fits all solution
  • Implementing flexible work has positive benefits across all areas of the business

It is not uncommon to find organisations with good policies and processes but still struggling with implementation. Middle managers are often scapegoated for these failures.

Because flexible work is so fundamentally challenging to the traditional outlook of organised work, Dorsett believes it takes more than policy to bring about change; it takes a change in the structure of work and delegation. Therefore, she argues, the responsibility for making the changes cannot rest with middle managers alone.

“In every case we heard at the conference about successful change the entire workforce was engaged. And, to some extent, once the changes were made the bridges people might have used to go back to the way things were before were burned. It was an all-in approach.”

This approach requires commitment and engagement across leadership to the workers. For many leaders, this is a risk; however, the experiences shared in the conference revealed that trust placed in the workforce was often justified. The organisations did not fail in the market (many reported little negative impact on performance), and when given permission, middle managers and teams worked together to come up with innovative solutions to the challenges of implementation.

“So, while having a beautifully crafted policy is nice, without a sustained organisational commitment it will not deliver the benefits that we know comes from having a flexible workforce,” said Dorsett.

Another barrier is the potential to isolate individuals and fragment team relationships. Speakers and delegates at the conference revealed that a sense of team and community is a high priority in the experience of work. Flexible work is a challenge to how workplaces understand work in terms of how we count time, how we locate work, and how we have a sense of shared community.

“I look around offices spaces today and see the effect of an economic approach to the implementation of Activity Based Working. People are working together but alone. I see people wearing expensive noise cancelling headphones. I hear about people communicating by e-mail to somebody two desks away. These are not team environments where people work together, these are isolated individuals who feel compelled to come and work in the same location. We can do better than that,” said Schmidtchen

The organisations that had been successful in implementing flexible work put a lot of effort into finding ways to create communities, designing the workflow to ensure teams come together and stay connected.

So, what does flexible work look like if it was business as usual?

“If flexible work is business as usual, it’s not even a topic of conversation,” said Dorsett.

“It’s not a conversation where those working differently make excuses for working in different ways. It’s not a strategy for retaining talent, and it is never a conversation where a colleague says ‘enjoy your day off’ as you finish work for the week at 2:30pm on a Wednesday. There is no need to refer to it as flexible work because it is just work.”