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Clive Andrews

Are you really working flexibly? Seven things to check

More and more workplaces are making the realisation that a strictly-enforced 9-to-5 working day can make people unhappy.

I’ve worked in offices where employees with 20 years’ loyalty are expected to feel apologetic or guilty for wanting to leave the office at 4.30 to catch a train or to take a cat to the vet. And the resulting culture is not one of productivity, but resentment.

But things can be different

I had a rollercoaster of a week last week. A bit of weekend prep for a big Monday project review, then a jam-packed two days of meetings and research. Wednesday morning started slowly, at home, with a massive pot of coffee and some lazy email checking. In my pants. It was the kind of morning I needed to offset the week’s hectic beginnings.

Many employers, NixonMcInnes among them, are embracing ideas around flexible working hours. But even then, asking around various friends, I see interpretations of flexible working hours vary:

“Oh yeah, I can turn up at 9.30 if I like” says one proud friend.

“My ‘core hours’ are 10 til 4. I get to choose between starting at 8, or finishing at 7″, celebrates another.

“I’ve built up enough lieu time to take me out of most of next week” gasps a worried former colleague.

Do these practices really constitute flexible working? I’m not convinced.

And then there are ‘Duvet days‘, an idea of growing popularity. Typically, this innovation may provide two days a year when holiday can be taken without prior notice. I’m still not convinced that really fits the flexible bill.

If you think your organisation is moving towards a model of flexible working hours, here’s my checklist of traps not to fall into:

1. It’s not truly flexible working if you’re not open with each other

Flexible working relies on good open communication. If I’m off the grid for a few hours, or have a lazy morning of email-browsing, it’s fair to my colleagues that I let them know. Specific appointments and expectations need to be accommodated, but I need to give everyone at work (or, if I worked in a larger company, my department) the picture. Here’s where internal social platforms like Yammer (or Chatter, as used at NM) come into play. Why clutter up the email when you can post a quick “see you later” on your organisation’s enterprise social network?

2. It’s not truly flexible working if there’s no trust

If a colleague is off-the-grid for a morning, or even a day, I need to trust her. If I’m getting what I need out of our working relationship, I don’t need to worry about whether she’s at home in bed reading a book, walking her dog on the beach, or even out on a bike ride. That’s her call. We trust each other.

3. It’s not truly flexible working if things don’t get done

This is the big clincher. There’s no point to flexible working if the work doesn’t get done. Flexible working, at its best, makes for more efficiency and the ability to focus your efforts intelligently. We’re talking here about taking our eyes off the clock and onto the ‘to do’ list. Things need to happen. But we have the freedom to work out when they happen.

4. It’s not truly flexible working if you’re documenting hours for no good reason

In environments like agencies and consultancies, hours are usually recorded in order to ensure clients are getting the time they’ve paid for. But I’ve sometimes found myself in non-agency workplaces where highly-paid, deeply responsible professionals had to spend time filling in purely internal timesheets that account for each day’s work. Seven hours today, seven-and-a-half yesterday, six the day before. What a chore! And what a pointless task. Let’s use these well-paid brains for something more meaningful than form-filling.

5. It’s not truly flexible working if you have to ask for formal permission

Flexible working is about empowerment. If I’m meeting commitments, communicating with colleagues, and performing as needed, seeking formal permission from a manager should be superfluous.

6. It’s not truly flexible working if there’s no give and take

Last week may have featured a wake-up-slow Wednesday morning for me, but remember, it began on Sunday evening.  A day that begins flexibly must also end flexibly. If a piece of work needs my attention until 6 or 7 at night, I don’t expect some kind of reward or specific time-in-lieu – I just know that flexibility works both ways.

7. It’s not truly flexible working if you’re not held to account

Flexibility comes with responsibility. And if a colleague needs me to be present in the office to work with him, or has concerns about the progress of a project, it’s absolutely right that he is able to ask me how much time I’m spending on something. And I need to be cool – not defensive – about having that conversation.

Am I being too demanding? Probably. Are all flexible working practices without value if they don’t satisfy all of the above? Absolutely not. But I suggest we shouldn’t congratulate ourselves too heartily if our approach to flexible working hours isn’t based on trust, autonomy and accountability.

 

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5 Comments

  1. Hey Clive,

    Good post, raising lots of good points. Personally I like things like time off in lieu, and having specific hours I’m supposed to work per week. The structure gives me reassurance that nobody thinks I’m slacking when I do take time off. Even if they wouldn’t be thinking that anyway, it works with my insecurities.

    One challenge to totally flexible working hours, i.e. not even having specified hours you should be doing work for per week/month, is how that relates to part time workers who get paid pro-rata. If I’m a full time worker who gets all her absolutely required work done in 3 days, and decides hey, I’m going to take the rest of the week off… and I get paid for 5 days’ work… that doesn’t seem fair to the part time worker who only gets paid for their 3 days’ work.

    There is always more work that can be done (even if that is learning, reading, thinking), so in agency life you never reach a point where work is finished, as you might in a factory setting.

    I like the core hours idea, of 10-4 for example, with flexible time around it. I also agree it’s crucial to be able to take unplanned holiday if it doesn’t disrupt planned work (I like doing this when the weather is suddenly good).

    One concept I’ve invented is the MVE: a Minimum Viable Employee: when ‘a bit ill but not ill enough for a day off’, working from home on essential bits but perhaps at 50% capacity. It means projects don’t get delayed and when you’re back at 100% there isn’t too much of a backlog from being off sick, which can be stressful to deal with.

    Posted 11th March 2014 at 10:43 am | Permalink
  2. I feel a bit sad at the thought of structuring office hours based on insecurity or worry that your colleagues don’t trust you. I’d prefer to build a culture where there’s a lot of trust and a huge amount of accountability, then you can set people free to go about their work as they choose.

    A danger of focussing too much on time is that for work involving strategy and creativity, the value created is often unrelated to effort in terms of time. I’ve had many days where I put in the time (and overtime!) yet still don’t get the results I want. And other times, in a matter of minutes I can make a key decision or generate a great idea which creates enormous value in the future.

    Love the MVE idea. I also like the odd MVH (minimum viable holiday) where I’m out of the office, no meetings, possibly out of the country, but still help to keep things moving forward. The danger with these things though is staying on top of email while sick or on holiday becomes expected rather than a choice.

    Posted 11th March 2014 at 1:06 pm | Permalink
  3. Hi Beth.

    Cheers for commenting.

    That’s a fair point you raise about part-time workers, and one to which I don’t have a neat answer.

    But it gets me wondering…

    i suppose time isn’t the only commodity we sell to our employers. There’s also effort, intensity, sweat, quality and quantity.

    I wonder if rather than ‘part-time’ jobs, there could be (I’m not sure what to call them…) ‘part-product’ jobs, ‘part-effort’ jobs, or ‘part-result’, jobs. Excuse the untidy language, but it’s just some idle thinking about how this level of flexibility could be extended to workers being paid pro-rata to work less than their ‘full-product’ colleagues. (I’m deliberately trying to avoid using the word ‘time’ here, and it’s not easy!)

    I wonder if the way we talk about most employed work is generally hours-based because that’s the easiest thing to measure?

    And of course, there are plenty of jobs where this way of thinking simply can’t apply, owing to the nature of the work. I get that.

    I suppose I’m not trying here to bang the ‘flexible-working-for-all’ drum – more suggesting that those companies that do claim to work flexibly should think culturally about this, rather than taking easy half-measures that aren’t really based on trust and autonomy.

    Clive

    Posted 12th March 2014 at 3:59 pm | Permalink
  4. Ben Sheridan

    Good post, Clive. This is a topic I have been giving a lot of thought to recently for various reasons.

    In my own working life my recent experience has been very positive. My employer changed my role and now expects me to be out of the office 50% of the time. Weirdly this is psychologically quite liberating as it means I feel less pressure than previously to be in the office at all times. For example if I have a meeting in the centre of London for 2 hours in the middle of the day I don’t feel the pressure to be in the office before and after the meeting – I feel able to do those bits at home.

    It also stops me feeling guilty about working from home – after all, it’s part of my 50%!

    The experience of others who work for different companies, however, is not so positive. There is still too much paranoia from old fashioned employers and a distinct lack of trust in people who have worked there for years. If they can’t trust them, why did they employ them in the first place?

    But you are right about what really counts as flexible. It sounds like NM have thought about this and arrived at the right solution, rather than tinkering an old manufacturing-derived time-based model that doesn’t apply to modern office environments.

    cheers
    Ben

    Posted 13th March 2014 at 2:06 pm | Permalink
  5. Really good ideas here. Unfortunately though it’s hard to create something that works for everyone, as shown in the comments here though.

    I think any focus on hours is never a good thing, as hours != productivity, and in fact usually more than 40 hours a week makes you less productive.

    It depends on the type of company though. Service based businesses that charge by the hour do need a focus on hours worked, however other businesses this is often not the case, but what people achieve for the business is of most importance. i.e someone could take 4 hours to do something that could take someone else a week. I actually automated myself out of a temp job years ago in 2 days that was supposed to be a 14 day assignment, luckily it lead to getting a better job in their IT department though!

    Trust, and shared ownership in the success of the company I think is what is important. And treating employees like adults.

    Something I have a lot more to say about that is too big for a comment box! But this post has some great ideas as we’re spending a lot of time defining our working “structure” at the moment if you can call it that.

    Posted 4th April 2014 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

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