How businesses must flex to ease the return to work

Richard Morris discusses how employers can offer flexibility – in hours and working locations – to those returning from a career break.

Should flexibility be a key consideration for employees returning to work after time away?

Should flexibility be a key consideration for employees returning to work after time away?

Helping professionals back into work following a career break is an issue under the spotlight once again following the budget announcement that £5 million will go towards extending return to work schemes to all levels of management. How this funding trickles down and impacts remains to be seen but the intention is to give those who have taken long career breaks the opportunity to refresh their skills and build professional networks.

Coming back to work after a break – for whatever reason – can be a difficult transition. Trends and skills evolve quickly in many industries, and internal roles shift and adapt. But in many cases, these returnees are valued professionals with much to offer. According to data from KPMG there are 96 million skilled women around the world aged between 30 and 54 who are currently on career breaks. Of these, some 55 million have gained experience to middle management level or above. If they all returned to the workforce, the result would be a £151 billion boost to the global economy each year.

Some businesses are ahead of the game, providing training, mentoring and networking to ensure the transition is as smooth as possible. However, our own data suggests that such support is not widespread. Just 7 per cent of UK firms say that they are seeing more mums returning to the workforce than last year.

Flexibility is a key consideration

What the handful of forward thinkers all agree upon is that flexibility has to be a key consideration. Whether other support initiatives are provided or not, asking professionals to return to a fixed-hours, fixed-location job after taking time out is not always workable.

Employers must be more open to offering flexible hours and flexible locations to work from. There is certainly no shortage of available workspace to choose from. The UK boasts one of the finest networks of flexible workspace in the world, environments that enable returning professionals to remain closer to home and to turn up, plug-in and be productive. Importantly, this workspace gets people out of the home environment and away from potential distractions, and back into a business-like atmosphere.

The notion of working flexibly is taking hold amongst businesses of every size but it is still being confused with working from home. In truth, the two are somewhat different. Certainly, workers will welcome the odd day spent operating from the home environment but our study suggests that if this pattern becomes the norm, performance may suffer as a result.

In a recent survey conducted by Regus among over 1,500 UK professionals, the unintentional starring role of children figures highly amongst the main challenges to productivity when working from home. The recent viral video of the BBC interview being interrupted by gatecrashing children is seemingly a scenario familiar to many.

When quizzed, 49 per cent of UK professionals nominated children or family demanding attention as a major distraction, and 43 per cent specifically mentioned children, family and pets disturbing work telephone calls.

Away from the disruption of family other difficulties arise with the work-from-home set-up. 35 per cent of respondents cited the problem of distraction from household noises such as door bells ringing or the rumble of the washing machine or dishwasher.

Technology and productivity

Technology drawbacks also affect productivity. Difficulty accessing office equipment such as the printer or copier is recognised as an issue for nearly a third of professionals (31 per cent), and over a quarter (27 per cent) still battle with a slow or unreliable internet connection.

Conversely, over half of respondents (58 per cent) believe that working in a professional environment near to their home can increase productivity.

The challenge for employers is not so much logistical. More, it is attitudinal, a change in mindset from measuring performance by visibility and time spent at the desk to measuring on output and results. This may require employers to make changes to reporting structures and to adopt new management techniques. It is about placing more trust in the hands of the employee, showing confidence in their professionalism and flexing the job around the person rather than asking the person to fit an outdated and rigid structure.

The financial and logistical benefits of working flexibly are convincing but forward-thinking business owners see well beyond these advantages. Attitudes are changing and businesses are championing working structures that aim to get the very best from individual employees.

Those businesses not thinking in this way face the very real threat of missing out on the cream of today’s employee talent. Again, our own figures reveal that when faced with two similar jobs, more than nine in ten professionals would select the one offering flexible working. Further, more than half agreed they would ‘actively change job’ if one with more flexible working was offered.

Importantly, working flexibly does not mean working in isolation. Co-working is one of the biggest workplace trends of the moment, describing a workspace that is occupied by individuals from a number of different companies and that encourages networking and collaboration.

Such spaces provide all the social buzz of an office without restricting employees to fixed hours and routines. These are environments specifically created to foster innovation and drive productivity, with employee wellbeing firmly to the fore when it comes to aesthetic design decisions and the inclusion of communal areas such as cafes, bars and activity-led breakout areas.

With the budget announcement bringing the issue of returning employees to the fore once again the onus is on businesses to re-evaluate working models and to position to ensure that skilled employees are not discouraged to return. Indeed, the concept of flexible working is one that appeals to employees across the board – not just those returning from an extended period of time off. If the focus on returning employees triggers a change to a more flexible approach for all employees, the result will be a workforce that is happier, more motivated and more equipped to produce its best work.

Richard Morris is UK CEO of Regus

Further reading on flexible working

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