Businesses all over the world have seemingly embraced the idea of flexible work. The firms that first implemented many of these policies experienced improvements in morale, efficiency, and equality. In theory, these policies should make it easier for mothers, caregivers, and people with disabilities to work. They empower workers, and give them the opportunity to work on their own terms, improving their efficiency and performance while lowering stress levels.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out that way on the large scale. While a massive portion of Western businesses have officially adopted flexible working policies, those policies don’t seem to be benefitting many workers. Gender pay gaps haven’t shrunk significantly, and Australia’s has even grown slightly in the last decade. People are still quitting their jobs to take care of children and elderly relatives, and most people are still locked into with rigid, top-down schedules in traditional brick-and-mortar job locations.
What is flexible work, actually?
Flexible work is a general term that refers to policies that allow employees more control over when and how they do their jobs. Some programmes are legally required in many countries, such as paid parental leave, but most are not. Popularised in part by progressive benefits offered by Silicon Valley tech companies, those programmes include telecommuting, flexible work schedules, and unlimited sick and vacation days.
Businesses aren’t following through
Businesses in Australia, the UK, the US, and all over the western world recognised the appeal of flexible working policies when they appeared in the early 2000s, but primarily just viewed them as a great branding opportunity. As a result, while flexible work programmes are usually extremely high-profile, they tend to lack follow-through.
Instead of treating this innovative idea as a potential benefit to their business, many simply use it as a perk for only a select portion of their staff, much like a company car or a designated parking spot. Others do make benefits available to most of their staff, but nurture a toxic company culture that discourages actually using them. As a result, only a tiny fraction of workers actually use flexible work benefits. While this is bad for workers, it’s ironically even more damaging for the businesses embracing these nominal half-measures.
Understanding flexibility as a tool
At the end of the day, flexible work isn’t just about great branding or improved morale. Those effects are only secondary. At its heart, it’s a way for businesses to get access to and retain labour resources that wouldn’t otherwise be available to them. The “benefits”, usually touted are that employees will be able to control their hours and working location in order to manage other responsibilities, like caring for children and ailing parents, or accommodating illness, age, or disability.
This is backwards, because it ignores that those individuals mostly don’t forego these responsibilities in order to keep their jobs. Instead, they tend to leave the workforce in order to manage their personal responsibilities. Businesses that have high levels of turnover are forced to spend more resources finding and integrating new workers. That isn’t just expensive, it slows growth and can disrupt performance levels and client relationships. Because of that, it’s in the business’ interest to be as flexible as it can in order to accommodate and hold on to good employees as long as possible.
Making flexible work accessible
To reap the benefits of flexible work, businesses need to embrace the entire concept rather than just the idea of it. The question for businesses isn’t whether to be flexible, but rather how to help employees access that flexibility in order to benefit both themselves and the business.
Spreading the practise
Obviously, not every job can be done remotely, or at any hours of the day. Despite this, employers should work to make flexible work available to as many of their employees as possible. Workers that have more real control over their working lives can more easily accommodate other responsibilities into their life.
A traditional marker of professional dedication and performance was showing up at the office early, and leaving late. This attitude is a large part of what’s keeping workers from taking advantage of telecommuting policies today. Failing to physically appear at work, or appearing at odd hours, is linked with underperformance and laziness. To combat this, businesses have to explicitly find other ways to measure performance, and work to build a company culture that doesn’t professionally undermine people who use the tools that are available to them.
In order to benefit from progressive flexible work policies, businesses need to transform their approach. By understanding that these programmes aren’t just meant to improve morale, but also to stabilise and strengthen an entire organisation, you can begin to fix what’s broken with flexible work today.