Flexible Working: Understanding the Business Case - Fleximize

The Business Case for Flexible Working

Why should your business offer flexible working, and how can you implement it effectively?

By Jason Downes

It’s no secret that flexible working continues to be high on the priority list for employees. Research from the Smarter Working Initiative, a UK-wide initiative to encourage businesses to introduce flexible working for all employees, has found that nearly half of all employers (48%) do not encourage flexible working. This is despite over half (53%) of workers saying they would be more productive if they could spend time working out of the office. Of the 1,000 employees surveyed, 70% said the option to work remotely would make a job more attractive.

These stark statistics highlight a growing trend of moving away from the traditional 9-to-5 office set-up and towards a more flexible working culture that suits employees’ lifestyles. However, flexible working isn’t just a one-way street.

The Workplace Employment Relations Study (WERS) investigated business attitudes towards flexible working in 2014. For the first time, it provided a way of testing whether flexible working had a real impact on an organisation’s financial performance. The report found that while the number and variation of flexible working offerings did not explicitly lead to above average financials, the number of employees going ‘the extra mile’ was significant in such organisations. Moreover, it found that both employees and senior management who worked flexibly increasingly gave more back to the company in terms of overtime and loyalty, and retention levels were typically higher than the industry average.

Looking overseas to our European neighbours, the Office for National Statistics found that overall productivity in the UK is 26% lower than Germany, where over half (52%) of employees are offered flexible working compared to only a third (33%) of UK workers. It’s no secret that increased productivity leads to improved bottom lines and ultimately higher GDP – there’s a reason Germany is the largest European economy. According to the FT, Germany’s GDP growth accelerated to 0.6% at the start of 2017, expanding at twice the rate of the UK in the same quarter.

Although there are numerous factors that contribute towards GDP and a business’s profit margins, the link between flexible working and improved productivity cannot be overlooked. There’s an undeniable amount of benefits for employees, ranging from significantly lower levels of stress to improving work-life balance.

However, there remains very little focus on why business leaders should shake up their traditional working structure. With that in mind, here’s my ‘business case’ for introducing flexible working.

Home comforts
Home comforts:

Some employers don't like the idea of employees working from the sofa in their PJs, but chaining them to a desk all week can have a damaging impact on morale and productivity

Attract the new generation of talent

Recruitment and talent retention is one of the most important considerations when running a business. Without the right people working to drive projects forward and create an inviting company culture, a business will simply fail. Companies wanting to attract leading talent need to be sure that they understand their ideal employee and what they are looking for.

Millennials - the first generation to be recognized as ‘digitally native’ - will account for 50% of the global workforce by 2020 according to PwC’s Millennials at work study. These young professionals, characterized by their natural affinity to technology, have made headlines with the way they have challenged the traditional 9-to-5 working set up.

This generation of workers are drawn to companies who have collaborative work cultures and flat hierarchies. They also favour firms that provide the technological tools needed to work both flexibly and effectively. According to PwC’s report, 65% of millennials said they felt that rigid hierarchies and outdated management styles failed to get the most productive work out of them.

As young professionals continue to place more and more emphasis on the value of a positive work-life balance, employers who are looking to attract the brightest of this group need to make sure that they are providing this flexibility.

Increase productivity through collaboration

According to a study published by the global HR specialist Randstad, Gen Z and Millennials collide at work, most business leaders strongly agree that collaboration is an important driver of employee creativity and innovation (67%), efficiency (67%) and operational performance (67%).

One of the biggest barriers to flexible working adoption is an old-fashioned management belief that unless teams are physically in the same place, communication will break down and work won’t get done. However, collaboration tools and readily available internet connection speed means that ‘lack of collaboration’ and ‘low productivity’ are no longer excuses for denying staff to work remotely.

As young professionals continue to place more and more emphasis on the value of a positive work-life balance, employers who are looking to attract the brightest of this group need to make sure that they are providing this flexibility.

In fact, working remotely can significantly improve productivity rather than hinder it. For certain roles, such as software developers or network architects, the last place these people need to be is in an office-based environment. Businesses employ different people to do different roles. While a busy office may be the perfect environment for creative marketing ideas, it could seriously hamper someone’s ability to concentrate on technical work such as back-end coding.

Introducing flexible working isn’t as simple as “let’s allow everyone to do this because it’s fashionable”. That simply does not make good business sense. Rather, it’s about enabling people to work in a way that is both smarter for them and ensures that you as a business get the best work completed at the end of the day. Not only does flexible working attract an overwhelming majority of the existing and upcoming talent pool, there is also strong evidence to suggest that it increases productivity immensely.

Reduce overheads and increase business leads

Possibly the biggest business case for rolling out flexible working policies company-wide is the potential for significant cost savings. Office space is one of the highest overhead spends for small and medium-sized businesses in the UK. Having to provide a fixed desk for every member of staff is a logistical nightmare and can eat up much-needed cash for product development and scale-up ambitions. In fact, Vodafone UK found in a recent study that UK plc could potentially save around £34 billion by freeing up desk space and implementing flexible working.

Moreover, a desk is rarely occupied from nine to five every day, as employees may spend lots of time out of the office meeting with clients and new business prospects. In real terms, this means many companies pay extortionate amounts for the pleasure of having empty desks.

Peace of mind
Peace of mind:

Web developers and technical staff can benefit from flexible working arrangements

Further, new business leads can be lost or won in minutes. Employees who are able to work anywhere, at any time, are far more agile than their counterparts who are tied to a desk. Not only does flexible working reduce overheads, it can also provide the platform for generating new business – both of which contribute towards healthy bottom lines.

Moving forward to a more flexible workforce

While the business case can be made for introducing flexible working, there will be some who remain unconvinced that staff will be productive or that large teams will be managed effectively when working remotely. There are two key requirements for successfully rolling out flexible working across a company – trust and technology.

In terms of technology, there are two main options for companies. The first is to allow staff to bring in their own devices and ensure they have all the required software packages, communication tools, instant messaging and conferencing technology to complete tasks successfully. Alternatively, you can provide staff with physical hardware such as laptops and tablets, which already have all the necessary tools needed for flexible working. While the first option is less costly for companies, it is also more time-consuming. On the other hand, the second option is not only time effective, but also enables companies to monitor cyber threats and manage internal networks with greater ease.

Trust is a lot harder to establish across a company than technological roll-out. Employees must feel like they are trusted to do their job but also that there are procedures in place to help them get the most out of working remotely. Leaders can create structure by introducing a formalised flexible working policy and training managers in how best to manage teams working remotely. The trick is not to micro-manage but to establish clear lines of communication from the start.

Through combining trust and the latest technological tools, companies can effectively establish flexible working policies and start to reap the rewards.

About the author

Jason Downes is the managing director of Powwownow , which provides conference call and web conferencing services to businesses, and a founding member of the Smarter Working Initiative (SWI). Downes founded the SWI in 2016 to promote the benefits of flexible working to businesses across the UK.