Voices

“Forget flexibility, let’s talk about autonomy.”

Why our industry needs to step up to flexible working now, or risk losing its brightest & best talent.

Sera Holland, UK Deputy CEO at Ketchum and Caireen Wackett, CEO of Portas

co-Communications Leads for the WACL Campaigning Committee

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As the 1st December deadline for concluding the Government’s consultation period on flexible working looms into view, it looks increasingly likely that employees’ ‘right to request’ flexible working from day one will become legislation in the near future. But right now, most businesses are far from ready, grappling with the reality of a return to offices alongside remote working. In short, the adoption of flexible working in the UK seems to be reaching an awkward adolescent phase, just as leadership is having what amounts to a midlife crisis. Meanwhile, the ‘great resignation’ is being felt in full effect. Coincidence? Unlikely.

It’s clear we need policy and practicality to align, or we run the risk of abandoning the progress made in response to the crisis of a global pandemic, retreating back to what we once knew. But work wasn’t working before, and a failure to innovate now means we will have missed the opportunity of a generation to lead for change. 

The difference between policy and practice is leadership

The truth is that cultural acceptance and norming of a change this fundamental won’t be solved by a policy or even legislation alone: the difference between policy and practice is leadership. To paraphrase F Scott Fitzgerald: leaders need to be able to hold two seemingly opposing thoughts in their minds at the same time - how to be ‘flexible for all’ from day one versus the complex realities of hybrid working - and still be able to retain the ability to function. 

Yet we hear there’s never been more spent on leadership training, whilst the belief workforces have in their leaders is declining and the disconnect and disengagement between leaders and employees is only increasing. And we have to question who’s listening when the flexible genie is well and truly out of the bottle with nearly 9 in 10 workers not wanting to return to pre-COVID working patterns, yet widespread adoption and implementation still seemingly up for debate. 

So what now?

Addressing the gap emerging between the direction some organisations are taking with flexible working and the conflicting expectations of their workforce, starts with arming ourselves with the facts, and listening hard before we act. 

Here’s the story so far...

Focus on Productivity, not Presenteeism

At best, organisations embrace flexible working and permission to have the conversation is equal for all, leading to proven upticks in productivity and employee satisfaction. At worst, presenteeism combines with flexism to create a new level of two-tier workplace culture and many - women in particular - remain reluctant to ask for it because they’re worried about how they will be perceived and the potential impact on their careers. 

A recent LinkedIn study of 250+ C-suite executives in the UK found their biggest concerns were that employees working from home may feel left out of promotion or career decisions (35%), and proximity bias may arise where people positively favour employees who they regularly see (32%). 

Its complementary study of more than 1,000 UK workers found nearly half (44%) believed people working from the office were more likely to be favoured by bosses and 39% feared could negatively impact their careers due to less face-time with their boss, and a third believing that being in the office is better for career progression.

None of this is surprising with chancellor Rishi Sunak exhorting people to “get back to the office if you want to get on”, Boris Johnson saying last month that a “productive workforce” only comes from traditional working patterns and a report this summer finding that two-thirds of bosses still don’t trust employees to work remotely. Recently the Bank of England economist Catherine Mann added that women who mostly work from home ‘risk seeing their careers stagnate’ now workers are returning to the office in large numbers.

But as Anna Whitehouse (aka Mother Pukka, founder of Flex Appeal) highlights: a two-tier workforce “isn’t a female issue for us to fix”. Instead, organisation-wide action to ensure managers have the skills to manage a hybrid workforce is essential, as advocated by Ann Francke, Chief Executive of the Chartered Management Institute. As she so succinctly puts it: “It is extremely important that organisations are not complacent. They need training on judging people and promotions by productivity, not presenteeism.” 

Don’t conflate flexible working with remote working

Flexible working is so much more than a binary choice between remote working or all back to the office: it’s a blend of many choices that can be complex to manage at both an individual and operational level, no matter what size you are or what industry you’re in. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t push for it. 

The short term impact of organisation’s failure to grant flexible working is visible, backed up by a comment a recruitment consultant made to us recently that ”right now it’s a candidates’ market”. Whether the ‘great resignation’ will be the tipping point for a wholesale shift to #FlexibleFirst working practises remains to be seen, but certainly, the long term benefits for all are established and clear: from productivity to profit, diversity to inclusion, and the proven effect on closing pay gaps across all measures.

The evidence for why hitting the default result button is a business-critical mistake is equally strong, from the disproportionate impact on minority and under-represented groups to the gender gap at home and at work. We cannot let a flexible working revolution stall or worse, rollback, with a study from flexible working consultancy Timewise this week finding that three out of four UK job ads are failing to offer it. 

Advertise all jobs as flexible 

As part of its commitment to “build back better” and “level up”, the Government’s consultation into the right to request flexible working a day one entitlement rather than after 26 weeks ends on 1st December. But the right to request is no guarantee it will be granted. Mandating that all employers are required to put flexible working options in all job adverts would go some way to addressing this flaw, an action backed by the Flex for All Alliance (TUC, Pregnant Then Screwed, Fawcett Society, Mother Pukka, Young Women’s Trust, Gingerbread and The Fatherhood Institute) and recommended by WACL.  

Make jobs flexible by design, not by default.

For an idea like advertising all jobs as flexible to stick, the organisational culture needs to be there in the first place. Designing genuinely two way, flexible jobs means examining flexible working in all its forms: from remote working to job sharing to time shifting to term time hours to annualised hours and more. 

Stand for Autonomy and Accountability

Perhaps this all boils down to just two questions: how much does an organisation value the autonomy proven to allow a workforce to be most productive and fulfilled? And how prepared are leaders to be accountable for delivering a new, better era for their workforce?

At WACL, we believe we need to look beyond one size fits all flexible working policies to a collective culture of listening and adaptation, and so that’s where we’re picking up the next stage in our #FlexibleFirst conversation. 

At the end of November, we began bringing together expert voices from across our wider industry to share their experiences and open up a dialogue to learn from each other. Learnings from our first #FlexibleFirst round table discussion focused on autonomy - a known critical motivator for talent but equally challenging when viewed through the lens of accountability. - will be shared soon.

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