March 25, 2014 9:02 pm

Technology opens way to make best use of staff and build commitment

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Pregnat mother working on a laptop©Bill Cheyrou/Alamy

Home comforts: flexible working is not just for mothers

Flexible working is a hot topic within many companies, with human resources specialists and employees demanding it but some employers finding it daunting to make such a big switch.

Businesses are showing growing enthusiasm for various types of agency, temporary, contract or contingent workers, and technology is an increasing enabler of new working arrangements. There is also a strong trend towards efforts to improve work-life balance.

But any company that is nonetheless resisting such change should remember their bottom line, says Nick Shaw of CEB, a corporate advisory and research company.

“You should bother because it makes a difference to company performance,” he says.

CEB research has shown that offering flexible working increases an employee’s commitment to their company regardless of whether they take advantage of the offer or not.

“Awareness of flexible working practices is as important as consumption of them,” he says. “There’s very little difference between the sexes and no significant differences across Europe. To be able to draw on the best talent effectively, you have to be more flexible or agile in the way you think about working.”

Recruiting and managing a flexible workforce requires a plan and strategy that ensures managers are on board. “One of the most successful drivers of consumption of flexible working is manager adoption,” says Mr Shaw.

“Connecting an individual with a manager who thinks about how it works for the employee makes a significant difference. Managers need to engage people to work together and conduct regular check-ins. For organisations, thinking about different options, engaging managers and making sure there is good communication are key points.”

Those different options could include two people doing a job share, thinking about different ways to ride the peaks and troughs across a cycle of work, and considering where the work or employee is based. A pilot or trial run is essential to iron out wrinkles and to ensure feedback.

Recruiting for flexible roles also requires an assessment of the different characteristics needed, such as ability to connect and build relationships. It is also advisable for new employees to spend at least one month on-site to build up their network before assuming a more remote role.

More and more companies are looking for creative ways to manage flexible working and they are seeking advice, says Estelle James, director of recruiter Robert Half UK.

“It’s one of the most talked about subjects among our clients and it will get more prominent. IT means it can happen, Generation Y expects it and surveys show that life balance can be more important than remuneration,” she says.

She points to American Express, which assigns employees to one of four categories – Hub, Club, Roam and Home. Hub entails a fixed role in an office. Club means flexible roles divided between the office and other locations. Home is as it suggests – working three or more days a week from home. Roam means almost always on the road at different offices or with clients.

“This is probably the way forward for most companies,” says Ms James. “But you have to put in active strategies for managing this. Amex will have team days and events so there is more cohesion.”

Flexible working might not be for everyone. Older people more used to being at their desk, for example, might resist change but companies will have to offer some form of it or risk being “left behind”, she says.

Alan Leaman, chief executive of the UK’s Management Consultancies Association, says most resistance to flexible working would be cultural. “Some people will say ‘I never had it on the way up and I’m sure clients don’t like it’ so organisations will need to tease out these problems with debate and discussion,” he says. “Some people might feel they’re letting down colleagues so people need to feel they’ve got permission for flexible working.”

But with clients caring more about outcomes than “time and materials”, a more collaborative and less hierarchical style of leadership becomes imperative.

When it comes to agency and contract workers, employers also have to navigate a far from easy maze of regulation, says James Cox, head of the London employment practice at global law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

“Agency workers are subject to a high degree of regulation and can be entitled to the same pay and conditions as other full-time staff and this can be a headache for employers,” he says. “These blurred lines can discourage companies from using agency workers and others on a short-term basis.”

The law is still developing and has yet to catch up with new developments, such as zero-hours contracts that do not guarantee regular work for employees, he says.

The best people have choices so the best companies will do all they can to get them, says Mike Cullen, global managing partner for talent at EY, the professional services firm.

The company has consciously moved towards an “output-focused, trust-based environment”, he says.

“A significant proportion of our people are not on-site and we don’t know where they are and we’ve always had technology underpinning this. Looking to the future, we want to double our workforce but we don’t want the fixed cost of real estate to double as well.”

Flexible working is an “incredibly useful tool to help people remain engaged and achieve a work-life balance”, says Laura Sherbin, executive vice-president and director of research at the Center for Talent Innovation in the US.

She emphasises that flexible working should not be seen as just for working mothers. “Our research has found that many senior working women over 40 are not parents. They might want to work flexibly to train for a marathon or to travel,” she says. “If flexible working is seen as only accommodating working mums, this can put a stigma around it.”

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Case study: Accenture executive attributes success to setting outcomes

Fiona Gibson

Fiona Gibson: 'It’s about really understanding the goals and parameters.'

Fiona Gibson is a managing director and sits on the UK board of Accenture, the professional services firm. She was one of the first senior managers to embrace flexible working, having switched to working three days a week in 1999.

She now works four days a week, allowing her to live in the northwest of England and do charity work while many clients are in the south.

Ms Gibson says the key to successful flexible working is setting outcomes and having the courage to ask for it from managers and clients.

“It’s about really understanding the goals and parameters. I sat down with my boss and we agreed what our expectations would be in terms of the key priorities for that year and how to measure results,” she says.

“With clients, nine out of 10 accept it because of the results. I continue to have strong outcomes because I deliver. You need to believe in your own value and it’s about the art of the possible.”

She gives the example of a two-year project involving her leadership of a team of around 25 people for a client based in south Wales. Following discussions with the client, it was decided that, for a short period, she would spend three days working on-site and two days working from home.

“I had to have the courage to ask the client, who was very happy and it was a successful project,” she says. “As the project neared completion, we agreed the dynamics needed 24/7 attention and we managed this flexibly. Everyone was happy because everyone knew the two-year target.”

Flexible working is not driven by any particular sector but rather leadership and mindset, she believes. “There is a growing trend of senior executives doing flexible working while young people also have different values and want to do things differently.”

Now, some 60 per cent of Accenture’s employees do some form of flexible working, she says. “Compared to 15 years ago, there’s been a real mind-shift.”

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