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Flexible working isn’t just for trendy start-ups: Business leaders need to adapt or lose talent

By: Rachel Youngman, Deputy Chief Executive at the Institute of Physics


More businesses are exploring flexible working than ever before as a result of the extraordinary circumstances caused by the pandemic. But the shift to a less rigid way of working isn’t just for trendy young start-ups – it’s also an essential consideration for older organisations.

While this may have been the picture for a long time in the startup eco-system, or those in the modern digital industries like tech and marketing, for traditional industries it can seem like a much harder transition. I am somewhat familiar with this challenge. As the deputy Chief Executive of a 101-year old organisation I’m aware of how challenging it can be to change systems and embedded cultures.

Nevertheless I believe that introducing a flexible working model is essential if we are to keep pace with the changing working landscape, and this is what all business leaders must do.

The modernisation process I led at my organisation (the Institute of Physics) has seen our 170 plus workforce be given the option to choose where they work and what hours suits them best. And crucially, they don’t have to put in a request to work in a more flexible way.

The benefits of switching to flexible working are huge. Not only can it deliver a better work-life balance for employees but it also helps them to be more engaged and productive. It gives them the freedom to be creative.  I have found in my organisation that I have learnt more about staff through the pandemic. Their individual hopes and fears, how they cope, what support they need.  It has been a stark reminder that no two people are the same, so it was a natural decision to trust our workforce to choose what works best for them.

Another benefit of moving away from an office-only working model is that it can reduce costs for staff. Going to work can be an expensive business when you factor in money spent on travel and food. This reduction in costs, and being able to better plan for them, can be helpful in supporting employees from underrepresented backgrounds who might find them prohibitive. It’s also hugely beneficial for those who have to juggle their hours around commitments, caring responsibilities or childcare, enabling them to plan and budget for these more easily. It allows those with disabilities or health conditions to better manage their working day.  These sorts of barriers are often overlooked by leaders when they puzzle over why their diversity figures are lacking.

Only by supporting flexible working can organisations hope to attract and retain a diverse and inclusive workforce, as well as top talent. Diversity of thought, experience and background makes businesses more productive and ensuring the working environment is inclusive of the needs of the diverse talent this attracts helps them to reflect and adapt to changes in modern society.

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However, it’s important to recognise that to make a success of the flexible working model, we will need to fine tune our skills too.  Trust is key. Business leaders have got to trust their employees and empower them to make their own decisions. The widespread shift to home working during the Covid crisis has proven in my organisation that with the right support people can be productive when working remotely. Any business that doesn’t trust its employees to work responsibly and productively without line of sight supervision clearly has other issues that need to be addressed.

A flexible approach to working hours and locations is not without its challenges. The camaraderie of personal connections and the water cooler moments are still important. Human beings are social creatures and it is very likely that many employees will opt for a hybrid working model, switching between office and home. For them, these connections are important. But for those who spend more time at home, a strategy is needed to ensure that they don’t get left out of ‘office’ life or struggle to manage their workloads. So it takes a different type of leadership to ensure that new working practices are inclusive of everyone and that it’s not only those who speak the loudest on Zoom meetings that have their voices heard. Support for line managers is essential to ensure that the new working world doesn’t leave anyone behind.

While some may believe that flexible working is the easy option, it requires a lot of planning. Leaders must create a culture where everyone is part of the conversation. They must also ensure that there is consistency across the organisation. From the first lockdown we started to prepare for a post pandemic world, and by talking with our staff we were able to recognise the opportunities as well as the pitfalls we need to address if we were to make a  longer term shift to flexible working. We still continue to listen to staff just as we talk with other organisations and share best practices.

The results? We are already seeing a shift in employee expectations when it comes to working hours and location. The pandemic has shown that there are different ways to work and for some a different way to live.  Organisations that don’t consider embracing a flexible approach may find that recruiting the best talent becomes more challenging in future.

Shifting away from the traditional desk-based office model is an important and complex step for some employers. The year-long trial period of the pandemic has given many reluctant organisations a crash course in supporting a remote workforce and observing the increased productivity that it can deliver. But also time to work through the challenges that individuals have faced.  There’s no one working model that fits everyone. But by trusting people and giving them the choice to work in a way that’s best for them, businesses can build a diverse and inclusive workforce by attracting and retaining the best talent.

While some businesses may be hesitant to completely re-think the office-based 9-to-5, one thing is clear – flexible working is the future, whether you’re a six-month-old start-up or a century-old organisation.

Rachel Youngman is Deputy Chief Executive at the Institute of Physics




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