Flexible working in businesses being held back by cultural barriers

Seven in ten office workers say they can get more done working away from the office and more than one third say they can be more creative when they are able to work flexibly, finds research.

Despite this, the research commissioned by Microsoft suggests that flexible working is being held back by cultural barriers related to trust, with employees concerned about how colleagues perceive them when not working in the office, and a feeling that flexible working is only about ‘working from home’.

According to findings of the study, nearly three quarters (73 per cent) of the UK workforce believe there is a lack of trust within their organisation that remote workers will work ‘as hard’ as office-based staff. This is identified as the biggest barrier to anywhere working, with not having access to the right technology cited by just 24 per cent as an issue.

When working away from the office, employees tend to overcompensate in order to quash colleague’s negative perceptions. Nearly half (47 per cent) make a conscious attempt to be extra visible by sending more emails and making more phone calls. Almost one in three (30 per cent) feel guilty about not being in the office, with nearly one in four (39 per cent) working longer hours to prove they are not ‘shirking from home’.

See also: Flexible working from day one – what it means for SMEs

Yet, despite these challenges, the benefits of flexible work-styles can bring to businesses are clearly understood. More than nine out of ten people surveyed (92 per cent) are unconcerned about being distracted or less productive when away from the office.

A similar number (90 per cent) state working away from the office ‘makes no difference’ in terms of collaborating with colleagues.

Similarly, the main drivers and motivators for anywhere working are focused around productivity and concentrating on getting work done, rather than reacting to travel issues, illness or company demands. 

Only 22 per cent cite childcare as the main reason for working away from the office. This challenges perceptions around the main reasons why employees tend to work away from the office and goes against many flexible working policies which promote flexible work-styles as a means of accommodating parent’s responsibilities.

Dave Coplin, chief envisaging officer at Microsoft says, ‘People don’t need to be shackled to their desks to be productive or to collaborate with their colleagues. Work should be a thing you do not a place you go.

‘Flexible working is more about choosing a location that best suits your requirements to get the job done. This can mean working from a variety of locations during the day, be that on the move, a shared knowledge hub, a coffee shop, a remote office or at home if need be.’

Philip Ross, CEO of workplace consultancy, UnWork.com says that when people are away from the office, they may well be more productive but feel paranoid they are viewed as absent and so do their best to be as visible as possible.

‘There is a risk that workers will prioritise presenteeism over effectiveness and this won’t be the right approach for them or the organisations that employ them.

‘The conversation should be about the work we do and how and where we can be most productive. Arguing about which single location is best misses the point entirely.’

Flexible working still yet to be fully tapped, study suggests

Businesses are yet to take advantage of modern approaches to working flexibly, according to another piece of research that sheds light on working practices.

One year on from O2’s Olympic flexible working pilot, the mobile operator’s study of more than 400 businesses and 2,000 employees reveals that while staff are ready to embrace new ways of working and understand the benefits, it is employers who are holding them back.

Three quarters (75 per cent) of workers admit they are most productive when they can change when and where they work and one in ten (11 per cent) even rate flexi-working as a more important benefit than their holiday allowance and salary.

More than three quarters (77 per cent) of employers say that flexible working is actively encouraged across their organisation but less than a fifth (19 per cent) of staff say their company encourages them to work flexibly.

Businesses are failing to effectively communicate their flexible working policies to staff, with 56 per cent of employers stating they have a clear flexible working policy versus just 30 per cent of employees who agree.

Employees aren’t aware of the tools and technology available to them to work remotely with more than half (54 per cent) of employers saying they give their staff the tools and technology to work remotely, while just one third of employees agree.

Some 70 per cent of managers say they try to set an example by frequently working from home or changing their working hours, but only 18 per cent of employees agree that this is the case.

Men are more likely to change the way they work than women with 30 per cent more men than women work outside of the usual nine to five.

O2 business director Ben Dowd says, ‘Just six months since Britain’s biggest flexible working opportunity, the Olympics, it’s shocking that less than one fifth of people feel they are encouraged to work flexibly.

‘Businesses must sit up and take notice of this critical evolution in employee behaviour and create a business culture equipped to support it. Talking about it simply isn’t enough. To create a truly flexible working culture, actions speak louder than words.’

Companies still not embracing flexible and remote systems of working

More than a third of business leaders say their company hasn’t even considered flexible working as a way of saving money, research finds.

The UK’s companies can potentially save around £34 billion by freeing up desk space and working more flexibly, according to a Vodafone UK survey.

However, the majority of UK business leaders are grossly underestimating what is possible to save with two out of three (65 per cent) insisting their business can’t lose any desks.

One in five of those surveyed think that their employees remain rooted to the old principle that all employees should have their own desk space (21 per cent) and flexible working ultimately leads to employees taking advantage of the system (23 per cent).

The majority of business decision makers (77 per cent) agree that they measure success by results rather than time spent in the office, yet only one in five (20 per cent) believe that they can get rid of desks through flexible working and more than a third (37 per cent) haven’t even considered flexible working as a way of cutting costs.

Jeroen Hoencamp, Enterprise Director at Vodafone UK says, ‘We need to get Britain working smarter and thinking about different ways of working. This research reveals businesses are underestimating the savings they can make through reducing the number of desks they have.

‘Not only that, only a fifth of businesses think there’s an opportunity to lose desks, demonstrating a lack of understanding of how working differently can cut fixed costs. New ways of working will also bring other benefits such as improved productivity, increased efficiency and a happier workforce.’

Hoencamp adds that in the current economic environment it is vital that businesses make the most of opportunities to save money while improving business performance.

‘By introducing new ways of working, such as shared workspaces, flexi-desks and enabling employees to work from anywhere, in or out of the office, businesses can save on property and fixed desk costs at the same time as actually improving collaboration and building a sense of community in the workplace.’

Working from home is the most common form of flexible working businesses allow, with almost half of companies (42 per cent) surveyed offering this. However, despite many business leaders (63 per cent) agreeing that employees don’t need to work the traditional 9 to 5 and that flexible working leads to a happier workforce (62 per cent), nearly a quarter (22 per cent) still don’t have any flexible working policies in place.

Yahoo bans flexible working, but should small businesses take note?

Yahoo’s decision to ban flexible working certainly is a baffling one against the backdrop of increasing flexibility in working habits, but for small businesses, there might still be a place for more rigid working patterns.

At a time when fellow internet juggernauts Facebook and Google continue to cater for the flexible working requirements of the precious commodity that is their talented (and not always loyal) workforce, Yahoo head Marissa Meyer’s decision seems like a trip back to the stone age.

When talking to those who work for one of the aforementioned tech giants, foremost in their praise for the organisations is that they feel truly valued. In exchange for the level of endeavour that fuels billions in revenues, there’s free gourmet food, on-site laundry, Wi-Fi commuting shuttles, generous maternity leave plans… and the knowledge that management puts faith in employee productivity and concern for their wellbeing way above the routine of regimented working hours.

Yahoo’s assertion that communication and collaboration are stronger with staff ‘working side-by-side’ and that ‘speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home’ is at odds, of course, with the growing sentiment that, among all else, allowing staff freedom in their working habits is a sign of the utmost trust in them.

There’s some evidence to suggest flexible working plans are catching on. According to the latest figures released from the Office Of National Statistics, in England and Wales the proportion of people working mainly at or from home increased from 9.2 per cent in 2001 to 10.7 per cent in 2011.

When you’re a small business, though, there might have to be a compromise. Risking lowered productivity with only a handful of (often overworked) staff isn’t an appealing notion for many small company owners, particularly if you’re the sort of boss who rules with an iron fist. Liz Villani, director of coaching business Courageous Success allows flexible working, but doesn’t believe that someone can work from home 100 per cent of the time. Consequently, her staff share office time once a week.

She says, ‘To be successful as a team you need to see each other and feel and be an active part of the business. The output of an employee working from home needs to be monitored – not because of a concern over trust but out of support, encouragement and team working. It’s a new way of looking at management – but a much more powerful way.’

Striking the right balance is the key. You may not be comfortable with running a small business in which everyone works remotely all the time, but affording trusted staff the opportunity to occasionally schedule work around their personal routine can work wonders for team morale.

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of SmallBusiness.co.uk from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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