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Overcoming Flexibility Blockers

Those of us seeking flexibility in our lives are potentially living in a golden age - you can't go on to a company website or twitter page before being bombarded with positive messages about their flexible working policy, best practice role models and best in class returner schemes. The reality is that very often flexibility has not really been embedded into the company corporate culture as part of a mindset of inclusive agility and flexibility remains an aspiration for many. In order to properly embed flexibility in corporate culture four main actions need to be undertaken by an organisation;

Determination of Actionable Insights

The first step to creating a cultural change is data, data and more data. This will help you to understand were you are as an organisation. The type of data you ideally need to collect is;

  1. Rates around formal and informal flexibility usage - including duration and type

  2. Attrition rates for women and parents

  3. Exit interview data to understand reasons colleagues leave the organisation

  4. Maternity returner rates (ideally tracked at 6, 12 months and 24 months after return)

  5. How long vacancies take to fill

  6. Cost per employee, overall and in individual teams

  7. Stagnation rates

For those who are still at the early stages of their diversity and inclusion (D&I) journey one way to collect the data is via a Glint or Pulse employee engagement survey. If this is not possible, or your company is not yet undertaking employee engagement surveys the next best step is to add it into the annual compensate review to collect data about how employees are working and this could be easily fed back up to HR. Another, relatively low cost, way to collect data is to joining a formal benchmark such as the UK based Working Families.

If there really is only limited management buy in to collecting data but you do have a women, balance or parents affinity network then the collection of a qualitative database of successful flexibility working in the organisation or at peer organisations is also useful to counteract any existing negative group think within the C-Suite.  

The data should at a minimum be broken down into two ways to create actionable insights;

  1. Gender Pay Gap pay quartiles. If a company has a best in class flexible working policy but hardly anyone in the third and fourth quartile pay bands are accessing this flexibility you have a key indicator for helping to resolve your Gender Pay Gap. It also likely that if you have minimal use of flex in your second and third pay quartiles you probably also have a falling off of women in these same quartiles.  

  2. Business lines. This would allow you to compare existing flexibility experiences against the margin/profit of each of the vertical. How are your more flexible teams performing?

Actionable insights provide you with the baseline for change and also provides you with a key indicators for future action.

Create a Common Flex Language

Often a lack of understand of the language of flexibility can be one of the main barriers to advocating for a cultural change. A common language provides those less familiar with flexible working to understand what you are advocating around and reduce down any future misunderstandings.

Ad-Hoc - this is the most common type of flexibility accessed in the workplace and can be used to support unforeseen or one off occasions - such as going to see a school play, attending a child's doctor appointment.

Informal - this type of flexibility is increasingly being used in the workplace to allow colleagues to achieve a better work-life balance. This can be for a specific period of time or continuous. In some companies a more formal process occurs to access this type of flexibility while in others a looser understanding exists. In organisations with a more mature view of diversity and inclusion this type of flexibility is new normal for all colleagues. In organisations that are still on a journey this type of flexibility is often accessed by 'secret' pockets of colleagues who have more progressive line managers.

Formal - this type of flexibility requires a formal change in your contract. In the UK this type of flexibility is legally available to everyone but is mainly accessed by women looking to balance long term caring responsibilities and their career. 

Within both Formal and Informal flexibility there are several types of sub-flexibility that can be accessed. There is a great list of the main types on the direct.gov.uk website. Slightly more interesting is the work that has been undertaken by Werk, which aims to create a simplified shared language around flexibility focused on six main types.

Before advocating for change understand what type of flexibility you are looking to introduce or develop will help you determine the business case for change.

Inclusive Agility across the organisation 

Flexibility is still seen by many companies as a discretionary employee benefit and consequently something that is mainly a cost to the company. A cost of having to accommodate different work schedules, a cost of training managers in this 'new' style of management and the slightly more intangible cost of just having to do things differently.

When flexibility is instead placed within a strategy of workplace agility then a real mindshift can take place. Change is the new norm so companies need to be ready to easily innovate and adapt – agility provides everyone with the skills and structures to support a modern competitive company. Agile working allows colleagues to optimize their performance using communication and IT aids and an inclusive working atmosphere. The type of flexibility available within an organisation will depend on the company mindset,- the more open the mindset to agility the more variations around flexibility can be accommodated. Put simply the type of agility available will depend on your needs, role, team and stakeholder requirements, as well as the type of agile technology available and the inclusive culture of the organisation.

This is usually the point where many organisations stumble - they often focus only on technological agility to allow locational flexibility but place a blanket ban on time flexibility or they have technological agility to allow multi-national teams to communicate but at the same time have a schizophrenic relationship to locational and time flexibility in their larger offices, with many colleagues only able to access flexibility as the exception as they have a 'nice' manager.

Once you have buy in a board level to work towards workplace agility then it is important to determine the flexibility culture. Some of the best practice I have seen is to start by determining four to five guiding principles, such as 'Flexibility as an important tool to increase diversity and innovation within our organisation' or 'Flexibility is available to all colleagues but not all types of flexibility is available for every role'. These principles will differ depending on where a company is on its diversity and inclusion curve.

Once the principles are determined it is then important for the C-suite to be willing to undertake a process of 'Breadcrumbs for Change' in order to test potential ideas before finalizing a vision of flexibility for the organisation. This will require at a minimum an investment of HR time. The funding for this, in my opinion, should not come from the HR budget but rather the research and development (R&D) budget of the organisation as one of the key outcomes is to increase diversity of thought and actions, which are significant drivers of innovation. Colleagues involved in the trials and determining the flexibility vision also need to actively seek our their peers in other organisations who are flexing in inspirational ways in order to speed up the acquisition of knowledge and not re-invent the wheel.

Buy in at board level of flexibility requires not only an acceptance of workplace agility but also the creation of flexibility principles and a willingness to take risks to determine a workplace flexibility vision

Implementation of the Inclusive Agility Vision at the highest levels

Once an initial vision of inclusive agility culture has been determined it is important two further actions take place to truly normalize flexibility in the organisation. The first is that a framework should be determined to support workplace agility -- a Flexible Working Tookit which provides a one stop shop for managers and colleagues for policy, guidance and real models. The second thing is that flexibility needs to be modeled from the top. If a company aims to encourage increased uptake of locational flexibility to increase productivity and colleague engagement, as well as lower site costs, then that should be role modeled from the highest levels. 

Actionable insights combined with a common language, buy in at board level and a well funded implementable vision will all combine to allow for the successful development of an inclusive agile working culture where flexible working works for all.