4 ways that companies can make flexible working a permanent fixture, and still succeed

Making the leap to permanent flexible working can be daunting to say the least, so we have broken down the seemingly impossible task into four key stages.

9th Apr 2021

Most of us have been working from home for over a year now, but the prospect of returning to the office is looming. Many companies haven’t yet decided what their working environment will look like post-pandemic but, right now, that’s the most important decision for companies to make!

Firstly, survey your employees

This sounds super obvious, but it’s the first place to start. You can easily create a survey for your employees to fill out, or there are a number of different tools available that will give you reliable insights into what your employees want. Key areas of focus that we suggest are:

  • Location - where do your employees want to work?
  • Hours - what hours would suit them?
  • Benefits - are there extra things that you could offer in order to improve flexibility? Examples might include a dog-friendly office or extended parental leave

Trying to please everyone might seem like a formidable task, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised that the majority of people have realistic expectations. We suggest collating results so that you can understand what the large majority (70-80%) of employees want, and taking it from there. 

There will always be outliers but, as with life generally, you can’t please everyone. Focus on making the majority happy in the first instance.

Secondly, make a minimum commitment to flexibility

From these survey results, ascertain what the minimum reasonable commitment to flexibility could look like and make that achievable for everyone without having to submit a formal request. This is the most important thing that a company can do, as offering flexible working “on request only” excludes people from ever being able to work flexibly. Almost 45% of people who want to work flexibly would not ask to do so, according to a recent survey that we commissioned with YouGov. 

We suggest adding a flexible working policy like this one here, and ensure that a level of flexibility is available to everyone. This can, of course, vary by team if required.

If there’s push back from senior management about working flexibly, then begin with a low level of flex (maybe 1 day per week from home and an hour +/- earlier / later finish times) and build from there. 

Thirdly, communicate your commitment widely

It’s vital that your employees are kept in the loop from day 1 about what you’re doing with flexible working going forward. Even if you aren’t sure yet about what it will look like in six months’ time, communicate the minimum level of flexibility that you’ve committed to and explain that it is a journey, and that you’ll be testing and learning as you go. 

Invite employees to give feedback and hold focus sessions to make sure that you’re communicating effectively. Don’t forget that the biggest signifier of successful flexible working uptake is whether senior leadership work flexibly too, so do encourage them to practice what they’re preaching.

Your new commitment to flexible working is also a brilliant hiring tool, so make sure that you talk about flexible working on your job descriptions, on your careers page, and consider getting your flexibility accredited so that candidates and employees know that you’re not just paying lip service to the idea.

Lastly, don’t be afraid of change

Committing to flexibility going forward can feel like a challenging task, but what’s the worst that can happen? If a certain way of working isn’t generating the results that you’d like, then don’t be afraid of failing fast and iterating on your flexible working environment to make it work better for everyone involved. 

Importantly,if things don’t work out as you expect them to, don’t fall into the trap of assuming that the flexible working approach is to blame. Company cultures are multi-faceted, and there are many factors that influence the success of flexible working, so be ready to evolve your approach to things like:

  • Managerial training - managing a distributed team is different to managing a team in the office every day
  • Performance management - flexible workforces need to be more output focused, so there may well need to be a change in the way you measure success
  • Socialising - organised events may need to happen once a month and take up half a day, rather than relying on beers on a Friday to get everyone to mingle

But don’t be afraid of these things - you’ll often be pleasantly surprised by how quickly and well people adapt to change…. And by offering flexible working to everyone you’ll be on the pathway to improving productivity, engagement, retention, and happiness among your employees.