Assuming you’re not Elon Musk or some other tech bro, we're all happy with the idea of flexible working, yes? Actually, maybe we aren’t if a new study from Unit4 is anything to go by.
According to data from the firm’s Business Future Index, 92% of 3450 respondents worldwide said their organizations have adopted some form of flexible working policy in the last 12 months. Benefits cited are a better work/life balance (86%), increased productivity (84%) and greater collaboration (82%).
The three most common flexible working policies are flexible hours (37%), completely flexible hybrid working (31%) and some mandated time in the business office (31%). These vary by country. A flexible hours policy is most common in Australia (40%), followed by Singapore (38%), whereas mandated time in office is most common in the US. Meanwhile in Europe, the Netherlands tops the ranking for flexible hours (45%) while Norway leads on mandated time in the office (37%).
Over half (51%) said that the pandemic had accelerated flexible and remote working, but over three-quarters (76%) aren’t happy with the arrangements and argue that flexible working policies need improvement.
Big sticking point - only 18% of respondents say their organizations have a policy without restrictions. Just over half (55%) say flexible working applies to all employees, but more than a third (35%) say it only applies to some employees dependent on job role, and a presumably hacked-off nine percent suggest it depends on the manager’s discretion and applies only to some employees. Australian organizations are the most likely to have a policy that applies to everyone, with the UK faring badly with only 48% of respondents from there stating this to be the case.
Why does this matter so much? Two words - Great Resignation. With the Future of Work in the Vaccine Economy still very much open to debate, staff retention is a major challenge. Attracting and retaining talent is the biggest priority for organizations over the next 12 months, cited by 63% of respondents. So when 39% of organizations admit to seeing people leave their employ in search of more flexibility elsewhere over the past year, that’s a problem.
Some 93% of all respondents say they face challenges when trying to attract or retain talent. In order to mitigate this, 40% say they need to implement an effective flexible/hybrid working policy, the second most popular strategy after the inevitable ‘more competitive terms’ on 47%. Interestingly, nearly half of organizations (49%) say they have been able to expand their recruitment reach geographically as a result of remote working.
For a while, the findings of this survey sent me in circles. It was a mental sticking point to absorb the comparisons from across a range of countries and industries. As an example:
Globally, the UK (59%) has seen the highest acceleration in the adoption of flexible working in 2021 compared to only 43% in Denmark.
This finding is all very well - but Danish work-life balance culture is enormously different to the UK (along with transport, economy, sustainability and infrastructure). Is the increase of flexible working policies in two very different countries comparable?
The point at which I stopped circling was recalling the days when I worked at an organization where the HR department was lovingly referred to as ‘Human Remains’, and changes in policy were seen as something done to staff from a distance, rather than with them. HR can embrace change and roll out new policy direction - but part of the critical findings from Unit4’s survey point to inconsistencies that indicate that policy, governance and culture aren’t meeting up.
There’s never going to be an ideal time to change at a level that successfully takes a business from ‘hesitant’ to ‘optimizing’. The aim has to be fixed on embedding the principles and culture of flexible working sustainably, beyond it being seen as “HR’s job”.
Unit4’s study reports that only 25% of organizations plan to improve diversity within the business. The ability to work flexibly is inextricably linked to equality and diversity, with the potential for discrimination across gender, age and distance. If the diversity isn’t a primary focus for business looking to retain talent, does it genuinely want to retain and develop a valued employee base?
Organizations that don’t have a mindset to embrace change beyond the reach of HR decision-making don’t have a hope of reaching the optimization phase that the study refers to.
The companies who are ‘getting by’ lose talented staff - including managers who could embrace and enact those culture changes - and risk perpetuating the ongoing trope of “this is the way we’ve always done it”.
A lesson from the study referred to as “The decision maker’s delusion” felt a little bit buried. A third (32%) of employees believe that the workplace culture isn’t a priority in spite of claims made by their leadership team.
Those fundamental strategic conversations about how policies will be delivered for the long-term has to happen in partnership with HR to get full buy-in, across funding, tools and agreed frameworks.
Those conversations also have to go beyond being rolled out from the leadership team in an ivory tower. How else will employees feel as though they’re contributing to the delivery of strategy - seeing where they fit in as a valued part of the organization? The best change leaders take people with them. The ones who don’t will doubtless provide the same answer to a similar study by this time next year.