By the end of 2020, over 70% of the UK population will experience some form of flexible working¹. Better work life balance is a differentiator for millennial talent, and a key driver for people choosing to join the 4.7 million UK workers² in the emerging gig economy³.
But we have seen organisations applying some concerning biases to those who take up flexible working arrangements, often unintentionally. Flexible models also need to go beyond simplistic ‘working from home’ arrangements if organisations are to truly realise the full benefits flexibility can provide.
Independent research by our sister firm, WhartonBC found that 77% of people working in the Insurance sector felt flexible working was seen by their colleagues as displaying a lack of ambition and commitment, with 27% of those working within the Risk sector agreeing⁴. Flexible working opportunities are not always offered as readily to employees without children⁵ and whilst 63% of new dads request changes to their working hours, nearly half of these are turned down⁶. Anecdotally those who move onto flexible arrangements frequently see their careers curtailed, as they are placed in a ‘box’ as someone less driven or less able to progress.
This topic cannot be ignored- especially with 22% of millennials and 19% of Gen Z planning to leave their current employer due to poor work/life balance³. If you offer flexible working but then apply bias to who this is offered to or make assumptions about the potential of those who take up the opportunity, you will erode the value flexible working can bring. And employees are not ignorant of this lip service approach; 69% of respondents surveyed by WhartonBC report a mismatch between what is said and done around diversity within their business⁴.
At Wharton Ignite we actively practice flexible working and have made it a key differentiator to how we both attract talent and serve our clients. We have found applying these principles properly adds significant value to our work, and that clients are – sometimes surprisingly – open to more creative ways of working. It has also allowed us to access talent that otherwise might have felt compelled to leave the sector. But it does require effort, and we have learnt some key lessons along our journey. Below we share our insights to help others maximise the potential of their people through true flexible working.
Insight 1: Learn to actively manage work/life boundaries
Research shows that working 14-15 hours from home each week produces the best level of job satisfaction⁷. But today’s technology enabled world means the boundaries of working hours blur, which can lead to increased pressure for employees. Whilst those working from home report greater sense of control and autonomy, they are MORE troubled by work-life balance issues than those who choose not to work from home⁷.
What can be done?
Help individuals set up boundaries and working practices and equip leaders and managers to role model these effectively. Agree clear expectations around core and non-core working hours for meetings, out of office replies that highlight working hours and using collaborative technology to store and share team insight and tasks are all tools Wharton Ignite make effective use of to manage a myriad of working preferences.
“Whilst I am not always present, I am kept up to date and know where to access information and updates when I need them. I’m connected when I need to be” (Wharton Associate)
How new employees are selected and onboarded is also critical to ensure values and expectations are clear and mutual from the start. It can be hard to always stay true to these working practices, especially when client demands increase in challenging markets. So regular reviews within teams to check working practices align with espoused values, and being open to challenge and willing to change when people experience problems, is critical.
Insight 2: Actively establish mutual trust
Trust is critical to making flexible working effective. Manager’s fears around flexible working tend to be underpinned by issues around trust; trust in productivity without presenteeism; trust that the system will not be abused; trust that standards will not slip. However, this trust needs to be two-way. Flexible working employees need to trust that their organisation will recognise their potential, that their performance will be judged as fairly as that of physically present employees and that consistent expectations will be applied. This is where we see significant and concerning biases in the workplace occurring, often unintentionally, that prevents flexible talent from being able to shine.
What can be done?
Critically review your performance management approaches to ensure they assess the relative contribution of those working different employment contracts fairly. Don’t place people in a box by making assumptions around their ability and appetite to progress. Apply flexible working principles consistently; too often we see organisations willing to implement flexibility for senior levels but failing to trust junior employees to work remotely which is a significant risk for talent retention given the appetite amongst millennial workers for flexibility. Upskill managers; leading those working flexibility requires a refreshed style of management⁸ with greater emphasis on interpersonal skills. Invest in your managers to develop these capabilities, and the unspoken fears and misunderstandings that frequently occur around flexible working should dissipate.
Insight 3: Focus on purpose and outcomes
Key to our success in implementing flexible working has been to shift from traditional model of hours worked to a focus on output delivered. Research consistently shows that a focus on presenteeism does not bring value to business and indeed costs up to £605pa per employee⁹. Yet we continue to see implicit expectations about presence in the office in many organisations. This is frequently mentioned by associates as the key differentiator for us; they report how refreshing it is to be judged on what they deliver and not where or when. Instead we focus on what our purpose is – delivering value to our clients to maximise their potential – and then work back to what this requires of our people:
“We worked when it was best for us AND the client. It was great not to ‘burn time’ waiting for the client to be ready- and instead to just be able to work when we were really needed” (Wharton Associate)
What can be done?
Focus on your organisational and team purpose. Ask yourself why you come to work and take time to understand why your team comes to work each day. Then clearly define a few critical outcomes needed to achieve this shared purpose, communicate these and trust your people to deliver. Research shows having a clearly articulated and shared purpose engages employees, and highly engaged employees in turn are more productive, satisfied and high performing¹⁰. Enable this virtuous circle to thrive and reap the benefits it brings.
Insight 4: Bring in and recognise extracurricular skills
Too often we see individuals feeling they need to hide external passions and commitments to ‘conform’ to workplace expectations. But what if these external commitments were seen to be advantageous rather than a distraction? Who can negotiate better than a parent used to managing the unrealistic demands of a 4-year-old? How much resilience and advocacy does someone caring for a parent with dementia develop that could be applied within the workplace? What if organisations could harness the intrapreneurial insight of an employee with a ‘side hustle’ rather than penalising them for it.
“When I had a child with complex additional needs, I felt judged and assumed to be less committed or able to work. When in fact I developed more resilience, focus and advocacy skills – it’s great to be recognised for these skills” (Wharton employee).
This was a key driver in establishing Wharton Ignite; Natalie saw colleagues with great extracurricular skills failing to have these recognised in traditional consulting work and personally felt penalised for being a single mother. Yet now we enable these activities to work alongside client commitments; we have wine importers, yoga teachers, climate activists and parents with caring responsibilities all able to contribute their expertise to our clients.
“Its great to be able to have time to follow my passions. I feel I am able to do something about climate change AND work – they do not have to be in conflict” (Wharton Associate)
What can be done?
Actively seek out diverse talent in how you advertise and select for roles. Train those involved in selection to help surface unconscious biases. Emphasise your business’s openness to those with extracurricular activities and understand what additional capabilities these might bring to work. Build expectations around how extra commitments will operate with client workloads into contracts to set clear boundaries. Encourage people to share their passions in team meetings.
Insight 5: Get to know your people
Flexible working frequently goes hand in hand with greater remote working and a decrease in face-to-face connection. Research shows creating strong relationships and connections is of great value to emerging talent¹¹ and is often the foundation for trust and effective collaboration. Indeed, concerns that virtual relationships will impact a team’s ability to effectively collaborate is often stated as a key barrier to implementing flexible working¹². Therefore, organisations need to invest in creating these connections even if individuals are not always physically present.
What can be done?
Our experience is that time taken to invest in your people is never a waste. At Wharton Ignite we run regular team sessions for associates to bring people together professionally and socially. This infrequent, but meaningful, physical connection then enables remote relationships to thrive. Make use of technology to keep people connected with business activity, but also use this to celebrate life events and personal milestones to create deeper connections. Use initiatives like sponsorship and reverse mentoring so people can bring in their external insights and views and create connections that cross grades and roles.
Insight 6: Allow conflict and voices to be heard
Finally, applying the principles of high performing teams can maximise the ability of all teams to benefit from flexible working. Constructive conflict is critical to creating a true sense of purpose and shared outcomes. Recent research by Reitz and Higgins¹³ has also found that fear of creating conflict is a key reason why people fail to speak up in the workplace, reducing innovation and openness.
The truth is flexible working is likely to create moments of conflict within teams. It can lead to collaboration tensions with office-based team colleagues and perceived inequalities in performance and workload¹⁴, especially when there is a challenge to meet deadlines with a variety of working practices. Not all conversations will be handled as empathically as individuals might hope. Actions may be misinterpreted, especially when communication is primarily via technology not face-to-face. So recognising this will happen and taking steps to make conflict constructive not destructive is key
“Without communication you won’t reach your potential to achieve” (Alex Gregory, Double Olympic Gold Medalist and Wharton collaborator).
What can be done?
When building a team combining different working practices, take time to talk about and explore team dynamics and personal working preferences. We use tools such as Lumina Spark, Lencioni or the Speak Up Index to uncover what is not being said, how people wish to work and how best to allow constructive conflict to emerge. As a leader recognise that sometimes you will have to take additional time to speak 1-2-1 to individuals to address issues and misunderstandings and carve out time to do this no matter your workload. Facilitate a culture that supports both speaking up and effective listening; our recent blog (Being Heard; Seven Steps to Speak up Success) provides some suggestions on how best to do this.
In summary: Done well flexibility should enable talent to shine
That flexibility can provide benefits is clear. Contrary to the fears of many managers, productivity increases by 2.5% when people are given the autonomy and trust to manage their own workload¹⁵. 39% of workers also report a marked improvement in their mental health after starting to work more flexible hours¹⁶. Practically, it can reduce organisational costs with decreased need for expensive office space and associated overheads. It also enables organisations to access a far wider talent pool and create a blend of agile contingent and permanent workers that can respond to strategic and business needs.
But it is not without its risks and complications. This is why organisations need to actively manage how they implement flexibility to get the most from the opportunity. That flexible working is seen to represent a lack of ambition and commitment is a perception that particularly should be actively challenged by all those seeking to enable talent to thrive.
The truth is we face a talent crisis in many sectors and clinging to traditional working models will prevent these organisations evolving. The 4th Industrial revolution is about more than just technology; it represents a fundamental rethink about how, where, when and why we work. We hope by sharing our experience, successes and challenges we can enable others to adjust their working models and embrace the benefits of flexibility.
⁴ https://whartonbc.co.uk/insights/inclusion-and-innovation-accelerating-change-transforming-the-insurance-industry/ plus as yet unpublished data
¹³ M.Reitz and J Higgins 2019, Speak Up; Say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard
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