In this webinar, we cover our observations of the three biggest challenges of flexible working and then our solutions and suggestions as to how to overcome those.

My assumption is that you’re here because you’re already sold on the benefits of flexible working so I’m not going to try and convince you of those, but I’ll also assume you are also wanting to implement flexible working or perhaps you’re actually already doing flexible working and you just want to enhance what you’re doing so today as I said, we’ll cover those three biggest challenges that we see our clients facing and what we suggest in terms of solutions and we’ll have a Q&A session at the end.

What we’re finding, is that technology has opened up a whole new way of working.  It’s things like document storage and sharing, replacing PC’s and desktops and desktop phones with mobiles and portable devices – all of which mean we can be completely mobile these days with our technology.  Virtual meetings are the norm and remote working spaces are increasingly popular – so there is really no reason why we can’t leverage this technology.

The need for change has come about for a variety of reasons – there are quite a few drivers behind breaking free of the 9 to 5.  We are looking at lot different to the workplaces of even 20 years ago.

We’re seeing an increased proportion of millennials comprising the workforce and as we know millennials typically have slightly different attitudes towards flexibility – in that they almost require it as standard – and so we have to cater for that now.  We’ve got an increasingly aging population, as well as increasing congestion, especially around cities like Auckland.  More and more people are working from non-office locations.  We’re also seeing the government driving diversity and inclusion priorities, including equal pay and women in leadership roles, which in turn will naturally flow on to all businesses.  The key thing – and true to our belief – is that flexible working is not just for mums; it’s not just parents – it should be offered to everybody by default.

When it comes to talent, attraction and retention – looking at findings of this year’s LinkedIn Global talent survey shows that 75% of businesses say flexible working is a top priority and 84% recognise that it does create a work-life balance.  Flexible working really is win–win for businesses and employees when it’s done right.

And some more research that helps to illustrate that getting the flexible working ‘fit’ isn’t as easy as you might think.  We are saying that you need to think far beyond policy.  There’s so much more that fits around a Flexible Working Policy.  A thousand workers were surveyed by Colmar Burton and almost two thirds of companies said they had a flexible working policy that was available to them, but unfortunately only 24% of those who said they had a policy accessible to them said they could actually “leave loud” – we will talk about the concept of leaving loud later on.  This just highlights that we have a lot more work to do than we think.

What Westpac said was that they recognise that there are still parts of their own business that aren’t as flexible as they’d like them to be  – they felt this was something that they needed to continue to work on, and they acknowledged that flexibility can be more difficult in some roles.  So, it’s not just about providing flexibility policies – it’s about being driven by senior leaders, it’s about walking the talk and making sure you make progress along the way.  We will revisit these ideas.

I am not going to go through the screeds and screeds of flexible working options available, but we like to put flexible working arrangements into three categories:

Flexi Days – this is quite self-explanatory and includes part time, full time, 4 days, etc

Flexi Hours – where start and finish times can be different

Flexi Place – where work can be done from anywhere

Now to get to the crux of why we are here today – let’s look at the challenges of flexible working.

Challenge One – An inconsistent approach to flexibility, where it exists, but in ‘pockets’

One of the main challenges that we find is that companies have really good intentions in terms of providing flexible working policies or that they are implementing a policy to tick the legal box (where any application to work flexibly must be considered), but flexible working exists in pockets a lot of the time and that has some potentially negative downsides culturally.

With just certain forward-thinking leaders implementing flexible working really well, this results in just certain teams really feeling the benefits.  This creates micro cultures within businesses and can breed feelings of resentment within teams who don’t experience the same level of flexibility.  Then when it comes to the teams who do have flexibility, feelings of guilt are often reported.

Often companies are even promoting flexibility as a selling point in their recruitment processes, but the reality is that without an overarching policy in place and genuine flexibility in place across the board, the employee experience isn’t going to be consistent and is likely to have some negative impacts in terms of retaining staff.

Going back to the Westpac ‘leaving loud’ research:  the driver behind that was recognising that negative feelings existed in the workplace because of an inconsistent approach to flexible working – resentment and guilt, as well as an unhealthy level of competition, where those who stay the longest are therefore working the hardest, causing cases of burn out and stress.

Westpac’s policy centres around getting up and going when you are scheduled to, without fear of judgement or impact on your career to try and mitigate those negative feelings festering in the business.

Challenge Two – Lack of organisational maturity / readiness for change

The second challenge we find is that even when a business makes a call that they would like to implement flexibility, often they aren’t quite mature enough in terms of the people basics and aren’t quite ready to change, because there are a lot of nuts and bolts around flexible working to ensure that it is set up right.

We find for example that a lot of the time companies are quite reactive in terms of their performance management and they are often dealing with bottom-of-the-cliff type scenarios with people rather than being able to be proactive in managing performance.  Additionally, there is a lot of training and coaching that needs to take place with managers before they feel confident managing by output.

Let’s take Company X as an example. They have about 300 people and they have got international offices but most of the people are based in New Zealand.  They have 7 locations, and the Head of People and Culture knows that flexibility needs to be a priority, but even as part of their diversity and inclusion work they are still not quite ready to tackle it. They’ve also got a really male dominated business – so only 28% female – and very few females in the leadership team.

There are values on the wall that don’t mean much to people (which is a bit sad as a whole process was undertaken to arrive at them) and they don’t have one cohesive way of communicating as a business.  They operate on a whole lot of different platforms that are both cloud based and non-cloud based.  They don’t manage performance optimally – to the extent where the annual appraisal isn’t a positive experience at all, so they are looking at how to implement a system to help before they can even look at flexible working beyond being a policy.

So in a number of cases we have found that organisations need to ‘get their house in order’ before they can even consider looking at flexible working, because they still have a very reactive performance culture.

Without an outcome based, goal oriented, live approach to performance, it’s very difficult to tell if your people are actually working effectively and therefore managers mostly need to rely on seeing their people in front of them in order to tell that they are doing a good job.  A lot of opportunity exists to mentor managers until they are confident leading and managing by output, as opposed to by the ‘bums on seats’ approach.

Challenge Three – Consistency across multiple locations / sites / job types

The third challenge is managing flexible working across different locations and sites internationally and nationally and also across different job types – not all jobs are created equally.  We will talk about some examples to illustrate what I mean.

Back to Company X – this is an example of having multiple barriers but solving them with technology solutions.  They have international offices and one of the things that they did, for cost saving reasons, was to close an office overseas and they were able to do that because being a science-based organisation, these particular workers were going to be ok working independently from home offices and so that was the cultural consideration that they needed to think about.

They had the added complication of a technology barrier in that their equipment is really high-tech, which was a problem only solved by getting everybody set up right at home with the right equipment.  They implemented Google Hangouts type solution to solve the communication problem and set up a weekly in-person team meeting, which the team really enjoy going to now as a balance to being at their home offices the rest of the time.

Another example is a Chinese company that we have been working with – their head office is in China, but they have offices in Auckland.  They are finding that they can’t hang on to their local staff which they believe comes down to cultural beliefs and the Chinese way of working – where you can’t leave until your manager leaves, and your managers manager leaves.  This is creating a culture of burn-out and a lot of stress in the organisation and contributing to low retention rates.  They have started on their journey to fix this, starting with the roll out of a policy to see what the uptake is actually like, before they develop a plan from there.

Lion Nathan is a good example of a company that is much further through their Flexible Working journey.  In 2015 they launched their award-winning program ‘Lion Flex’ and they had a couple of barriers, one being cultural, where they needed to change the perception that meetings had to take place in one physical location in order to get key information.

They also had difficulty around technology, so there was a lot of up-speccing of technology and cloud based systems before they could even look at flexibility in terms of working in different locations / remotely.  They also had their manufacturing element of the business to think about, with not all job roles being created equally as I was saying before, so they had a really hard look at how they were going to tackle that and what they could offer.

They divided their program into four categories – Flexi Place which is self-explanatory, Flexi Leave (the opportunity for people to purchase up to two weeks annual leave), Flexi Schedule (where work can be scheduled around lifestyle to a certain extent) and Flexi Role (which is the one that could be applied to the manufacturing areas, as there are options to job share or work part time).

Just one more example for you – Electric Kiwi is a really great company that we have been working with recently.  They’re a fast growing technology business and quite mature in terms of their culture.  It’s a great place to work, they have great retention rates and they are already ahead in terms of the technology itself being that they are 100% cloud based.  Their flexible working culture has grown organically from there and it’s paved the way for people to be able to work from anywhere.

They actually find that people elect to come into the office because of the team and culture and because they want to connect and collaborate, despite the flexibility on offer.  They have time zones to consider when structuring flexibility, with about 100 staff in India and many of their meetings occurring from 3pm onwards, so people know what needs to be considered within their day before they choose to work remotely.

Making it work

So what do we recommend to make it work?

  • It’s about consulting with your people and asking your people what they think, because there is no one size fits all.
  • Then, formalising your flexible working policy developing a policy that managers and their people can almost pick from like a menu to suit their individual / team context.
  • Adopt flexible working by default – there shouldn’t be any one reason why one flexibility is more important to someone versus someone else.
  • Make sure it is driven by leaders; that is where the real success comes, where they are actually behind it and walking the talk.
  • Flexible working needs a really consistent approach to be effective as well – as well on ongoing check-ins, measurements, iterations and improvements.
  • Trust should be assumed from the outset, rather than just in return for long service.
  • Having a goal-oriented output-based performance management culture is really critical, to really allow people to be able to understand if people are still being effective and productive under different flexible structures.

Obviously having the right technology in place is really key.

Being able to upskill leaders to actually manage or lead flexible workers is really critical.

Don’t feel that you have to implement something and it has to stick forever.  A lot of companies trial flexible working arrangements before making them permanent.  Perpetual Guardian brought in a 3 month trial of their 4 day work week and it was so successful that it became a permanent way of working.  Lion Nathan were the same with their ‘flexperiments’ of different working policies.

Something that we find quite useful when looking at flexible working solutions that can apply to different businesses and teams is to think about the needs of the individual, the team and the business and how a ‘win-win’ can be struck amongst them.  So let’s say I was looking to work from home today.  I would think about what my team needs from me today, what the business needs are – for example, customer or client needs – and whether I can still deliver what I need to if I choose to work flexibly.  A win-win can be achieved in the middle if you think about yourself in the context of the team and the business.


Can you give us an example of a really successful flexible working programme? 

I will take you through what PWC did.  Their flexibility programme has been going for 5 years and they learnt that you need to find out what your people want, so they focused on surveys and consultation and continuing to evolve policies based on that feedback.

Their approach was that all reasons for flexibility are equal, so flexibility is not just on offer for parents.  PWC also differentiate between everyday flexible options like flex days versus actual formal changes in terms of flexibility, so there is a way of having those everyday things that people can choose to do to enjoy more flexibility, versus having formal arrangements particular to them.

Placing trust in people from the outset was a key thing for them as well as talking about flexibility with leaders.  You can read more about their approach to flexibility here.

I was just wondering about what you thought around the importance of the relationship between a manager and his or her employees, because I imagine no matter what the company’s stances on these kind of things and flexible working and that has still got a large part to play.

I think it is around knowing that it is not a quick fix, with many of the companies I’ve spoken about being years into their flexible working journeys.  It is about management upskilling – as we know as HR people, so many managers end up in management positions because they are good at what they do day to day rather than because they are good at managing people, so it is about ensuring that they have the tools to build that relationship and trust with their people.  They need the tools to be able to manage performance in a way that they know their people are effective – whether they are sitting in front of them or not.

Can you give an overview of the leaving loud policy?

This was originally a concept of PepsiCo.  The background is that Westpac were finding that people would be getting up a 3 o’clock to go because they are a part time person, say and there was a lot of guilt for them about that.  Then others were feeling resentful about people having those kinds of arrangements.  Additionally, there was a culture of people staying longer and longer – like a competitive thing – as there was a feeling or perception that that meant they were working harder.  They were noticing those behaviours in pockets in the business and that brought about the need for more surveying and investigation.  They did a survey of a thousand workers and they designed their policy around ‘leaving loudly’ – saying ‘this is my arrangement, I’m going now, and it’s ok, because flexibility in some way shape or form is on offer to everyone’.

So if it is a consistent approach in the overarching policies and is available to everybody to individually work through with your manager, depending on the role, then that really takes out that feeling of resentment because you have more say and control over the way you work.  They are still in the process, and acknowledge they are still working on it and that not every role is able to be as flexible as the next role.

What would you see as being the main health and safety consideration with flexible working?

That is a really good point and would be my fourth challenge if I had to have 4!  So recently I have done a bit of work with a client helping them with safe work set up at home for their remote team.  The working from home flexible work arrangement probably has the most H&S considerations, especially since your home office becomes the workplace.

So having a sound policy and expanding on your health and safety policy to cover remote working and home working, and also covering that you are not considered to be working from home when you are sick, as well as making sure you are educating people on a safe ergonomic workstation set up.

Ensuring people are trained on the principles of safe workstation set-up is important as well as ensuring remote workers take a photo of their home workstation to show their managers.

To attend one of our LIVE webinars, check out our Events page.