Thursday, 14 April 2016

Let's get flexible

Recently the CIPD published a report on Commuting and Flexible Working, which you can read hereThis blog is my take on flexible working and commuting and the issues therein, reflecting on my own experiences of both. 

The CIPD report highlights that those who work flexibly suffer from less stress, have a better work life balance, greater job satisfaction and spend less time commuting. The various forms of flexible working are also mentioned, but the report doesn't go into detail about whether any one of these methods is proving most effective at achieving these outcomes for individuals. It says that 54% of employees work flexibly in one form or another, and that there is significant evidence linking flexible working with better productivity and overall employee engagement. 

I'd agree with this but if the evidence is so compelling, why isn't everyone doing it?

Simon Heath blogged yesterday on this subject and you can read his views here - a very well written post that echoes some of my own thoughts and prompted my own blog.

So why isn't everyone doing it?

I wonder whether the concept of flexible working has negative connotations for some? I know many of my friends, when I started working flexibly, poured scorn on me and don't believe that I am as productive as they are simply because they sit at a prescribed desk every day in the same location and do that uniformly at the same times every day without fail. These same friends still doubt that I do as much work as them even some 15 years later. 

But these are people who have never tried working flexibly and whose employers have never encouraged it. 

Simon, in his blog, talks about how he wants his children to grow up learning certain values and beliefs about the world of work, and I agree wholeheartedly. I want my three children to enter a world of work searching for a work life balance that suits them and their needs. There are 168 hours in a week and most people will only spend 35-40 of them working, so anything you can do to make those hours more productive, you should go for it and employers should encourage you to find ways to do that. 

I also want my children to think that flexible working isn't something you have to ask for, that it is in fact the default way of working. That it is working, and there's no need to label it as flexible and something distinct from the way others work. Everyone should have some degree of flexibility and shouldn't need to ask for it. 

As a manager I often say to my staff that I don't really care where or when work is done, as long as it is done. And I've adopted that approach in several different organisations and been lucky enough to have some enlightened employers who have encouraged that view widely in the organisation. 

So if some of my work is best done on a train, in the bath, or whilst on the exercise bike in the gym, or sat in a coffee shop during the normal working day instead of in an office, or by walking around the site talking to someone instead of sat in a meeting room, or by having some quiet time at home during a day or perhaps doing some work late in an evening or at a weekend, then so be it. The same goes for my staff, and my children will hopefully inherit this way of thinking. I feel you should judge staff by what work they do, not by how many hours they are sat at a prescribed desk. 

I value the benefits I get, and am able to give to my employer, by working flexibly, and genuinely don't know if I could ever work inflexibly again. I contrast my experiences with those of my fiancé, whose current and previous jobs have required her to work precisely 9-5 Mon-Fri at the same desk in the same location, no variance in location or times whatsoever. Even lunch breaks were strictly controlled to exactly one hour no more no less in one place, and in another she can't even have a lunch break because that is seen as being too flexible and biased towards the employee.

And I don't think she's alone. I know others in similar situations, where organisations don't believe in flexible working and haven't seen the benefits, and where senior leaders don't work flexibly themselves and therefore don't lead by example. 

Sadly, as Simon and others have commented, presenteeism is rife in our world of work. Too many employees are judged as being productive if they are seen to be sat at a desk tapping away on a keyboard or making calls. Too many organisations don't think employees can possibly be productive in any other way. 

And no amount of calls for government intervention will rectify this, in my view. It may take a generation or more before we can truly say the balance has shifted. We may have to do it individual by individual, organisation by organisation, and hope that the change spreads virally. And it should do, based on progress during my working lifetime, albeit quite slowly. 

I also find myself bemused by the concept of flexitime and recording ones working hours for the purpose and checking you are doing your required hours and accruing extra via a bureaucratic system. In my current organisation there is no such thing and people can't comprehend why you would have one or how it would work, as it's all done on trust as it should be. In a previous organisation such a system was ingrained, and just before I left I had proposed removing this system. Things I hear afterwards suggest there is widespread opposition to this, as if people cannot imagine working without recording the hours they work and providing proof of their input, and yet the proposals suggest moving to a more adult-adult approach based on trust and one which records outputs not inputs, as of course it should. But this is an example of how organisational culture can get in the way of true flexible working. 

The CIPD report also covers commuting, suggesting that a good proportion of employee spend up to 10% of their salary on commuting costs, spending around half an hour each commuting to work (and the same back) and travelling via various means to get to work. This focuses a lot on London workers, but it's good to contrast with my own experiences again. 

In all bar one job I have driven to work. These drives have always been a minimum of 20 minutes a maximum of 75 minutes and have averaged around 40-45 minutes. When I got the train in one job, I found myself resenting other people's presence on my commute, and I became fairly antisocial. I like my drive. I can make calls via hands free, and if I get stuck in traffic I can read my emails and social media feeds. I can do a lot of mental preparation for the day ahead and it helps to clear my head both ways on the commute. I think if I had a very short commute I would struggle to do that. And yet, when I moved to another place of work last year and suddenly had to add another 10-15 minutes to my commute, I hated it and the commute became a good enough or tipping point reason to want to leave that place of work.

Just for an extra 10-15 minutes. This would suggest there is an optimum commute time for me that is around 40 minutes and anything more OR less is not productive for me either at home or at work. 

I have never been able to walk or run to work and I do wonder what that would be like. So I think a commute, no matter what method is used, is helpful in the majority of cases and whilst it would help to give people the choice NOT to commute (ie work from home or somewhere else) and to encourage sustainable and cheap forms of transport, I wouldn't advocate doing away with the commute altogether as I can see some benefits to it in terms of both productivity and engagement. 

In short, I don't think it would be helpful to work from home for the majority of the time. I think I would struggle to thus distance myself from home in my mindset and the lines may become too blurred. The same would be true if I worked a few minutes from home.

But then I know I'm strange. 

Overall I found the CIPD report very interesting and agreed with most of its findings. I appreciate why they had a London focus but it would have been helpful to widen the survey and compare attitudes across other regions also. It ends with the right conclusions that flexible working needs to increase but that it is outdated attitudes that often are the barrier, and that both organisations and leaders need to promote and encourage more flexibility. I think this is critical if we are to create the world of work that I want my children to enter, and to enjoy and be productive in. 

Till next time. 


Ps in other news, bridesmaids dresses have now been purchased for the wedding and it's now my turn to get my outfit sorted. Watch this space.