Rethinking the ‘when, where and how’ of work

At a recent Mercer HR Leaders Forum, Linda Lee detailed what she’s learned while helping roll out Mercer’s ‘All roles can flex’ program. Linda is also the proud recipient of a 2018 Champion of Flexible Work Award in the Individual category.

People are misinformed about what flexible work is

Linda Lee is an Organisational Development Professional and a flex worker. She believes flexible working hasn’t yet been enthusiastically embraced partly due to misconceptions. Such as the common belief that it “is limited to carers or is 100 per cent remote working”. Citing her own experience combining working from home and spending time in the office, as well as participating in globe-spanning video conferences late at night while taking care of family responsibilities during business hours, Lee argues, “Flexible working is about personalising working conditions, so they are mutually beneficial to both the individual and the business.”

It’s often assumed introducing flex options necessitates drafting lengthy policies then completing reams of paperwork. While many employers have taken that approach, Lee insists it’s not necessary. “We want to completely shift that mindset and highlight flexible working can be much more informal,” she says. “In fact, maybe there shouldn’t even be a policy, [it should be accepted] that’s just the way we work.”

There’s no turning back the clock

Lee points out labour market trends – the rise of the free agent, the uptake of mobile working, the interest in entrepreneurship and growing prevalence of side hustles – mean today’s workers expect far more autonomy than their predecessors enjoyed.

“Organisations will increasingly find there is less talent available in the market,” she says. “The ability of your organisation to offer flexibility will be a key differentiator for attracting and retaining talent.”

Expect stakeholders to resist change

Lee observed Mercer has “4000 people managers across 42 countries and five generations”. Given some parts of the business don’t see a pressing need to shake up the traditional arrangements, how is Lee driving change?

Firstly, by getting HR onboard.

“We’ve engaged with our global HR leaders,” she says. “We need HR to be behind this. They are the ones that can help us break down internal barriers [and] discard legacy policies preventing us from being a more agile workforce.”

Conscious that only a quarter of organisations offer staff flexible-work training, Lee and her team have also sought to avoid the classic mistake of failing to secure buy-in from line managers. “We developed a training module specifically for people managers because they are critical to this,” she says. “They are the ones who need to balance the needs of the business with the needs of the individuals on their teams.”

Forget about finding a one-size-fits-all solution

After analysing the available data, it became clear to Lee that organisations can’t simply shoehorn in a range of flexible working options that have worked elsewhere. Take, for example, the end-of-week early mark. One of Mercer’s clients tried to introduce this with unexpected results.

“Employees were leaving at 3pm on Friday, as they were supposed to, but coming back to the office shortly afterwards,” she says. “In their culture it was unacceptable to leave work early. Employees were worried about how they would be perceived by their families.”

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel

After establishing that introducing flexible working practices is both necessary and complicated, Lee reassured the HR professionals in her audience that resources were available.

Mercer, for example, has co-developed the Adaptive Working™ tool with clients to solve for flex working. This tool encourages organisations to think in five dimensions – when, where, what, how and who – in relation to work. This takes them beyond the standard, two-dimensional ‘when-where’ focus.

Lee says the tool can assist organisations to clarify “what success looks like” in terms of the results they hope to achieve from introducing flex options (e.g. increased productivity or decreased turnover). It can also help “calculate the cost savings of moving to a more flexible working environment”.

To practice what we preach, we have been using Adaptive Working internally at Mercer. Using this tool in Leeds it was predicted the office will be able to save £600,000 in the first year. This calculation is based on research that suggests flexible working will lead to an increase in productivity and a decrease in employee turnover.

Vast amounts of global employee research supports the need for flexible working too. Whether it be the fact that “40% employees said more flexible work options would help them thrive at work”, or that the very perception of work has changed and “people want to fit work into their unique lives” as opposed to the other around, it is clear that the modern employee is demanding change also. (Mercer Global Talent Trends 2017 & 2018)

While we can see the tangible changes of flexible working, organisations need to understand that a cultural shift is needed too. In order to be successful a holistic approach must be taken, and a broad range of possibilities explored when considering the question of “How can this work be done”?

What does flexible working look like at your organisation, and how are you measuring the benefits?