From education to employment

Flexible working has challenges and pitfalls, but the benefits are impossible to ignore #FutureofWork

Jason Fowler, HR Director at Fujitsu UK & Ireland

How to make #FlexibleWorking work for your organisation

Today, more than half of UK workers work flexibly in some way, but there is still a lot of unmet demand: two in three workers (68%) would like to work flexibly in a way that is not currently available (CIPD, 2019).

It’s a hot topic that I see increasingly discussed across individual colleagues, management and leadership alike. But it’s also something that can mean different things for different roles and different companies.

Flexible working is therefore not something that can simply be rolled out in a uniform way. There will be nuanced challenges for each organisation to navigate.

Let’s take a look at some of these key considerations:

Purpose and association

Employer brand is becoming increasingly important as competition for talent grows fiercer and workers expect more than just financial rumination for their efforts.

Companies are investing significantly to get their employer brand just right – whether in engagement surveys, employee value propositions or seeking to establish a common sense of purpose that delivers against corporate objectives.

A key dependency is the sense of connection and association that each individual employee feels about their employer – and it is quite unrealistic to think this can be created and nurtured entirely remotely. Physical presence in the working environment and the sense of common purpose and collegiate association that this engenders is an intangible but valuable asset.

It is what transforms the employment relationship from transactional (skills, time and effort in exchange for money) into emotional commitment.

Innovation and collaboration

As a species, humans are naturally sociable – we tend to seek out opportunities to interact and form relationships with others. Doing so in an organisational environment can foster creativity and innovation in an unstructured yet highly productive way.

This cannot be replicated via the often cold, contained virtual meeting slots that are focussed on a set agenda or specific topics. Practical steps such as keeping the video facility on can help quite a lot, but it’s still not comparable to the value of face-to-face human interaction which forms the basis of trust and in turn collaboration and the spark of creativity.

Personal development

The most effective way of learning new skills and developing is through working with others that already know how. In the digital era, the need for each of us to take control of our own development and seek out ways to renew our skills – professional and extra-curricular – on an ongoing basis has increased considerably.

This is also a huge challenge for employers; as the half-life of any particular skill reduces, they need people with a growth mind-set who can continuously learn. To significantly limit or even eliminate face-to-face time between teams – and especially cross-functional teams – places another obstacle in the way of an already difficult yet vital task in front of individuals and the organisations they work for.

Mental health and wellbeing

Working remotely can contribute to positive mental health and wellbeing, allowing us to fulfil our other roles in life – parent, partner, carer, or even school governor. However, we need to be aware that it can also create a sense of loneliness and isolation.

Without the opportunity for the informal coffee, the casual chat and the visible sense that others are finding the same challenges we are, issues can be magnified and become disproportionate.

There’s also the risk that home becomes always associated with work – as the physical boundaries between home and work no longer exist, and so the mental boundaries break down too. The always on syndrome can be destructive for individuals and hugely unproductive for organisations

Reasons to visit the workplace

Yes, there are challenges, but that doesn’t mean flexible working is some kind of myth. There are steps that organisations can take to make flexible working a success.

Firstly, they can make the workplace compelling. This can take a physical form – modern, planned workspaces that feel like the type of place you want to spend time – as well as putting on events that are worth making the effort to travel in for. Executive townhalls can play a part as can non-job specific events.

At Fujitsu we operated one of the BBC Children in Need call centres at our Manchester office for the eighth consecutive year and in doing so had colleague volunteers from across the country travel to be a part of it. We will also be having Christmas lunch days across our sites during December as well as lunch and learn sessions to support development – simple examples of reasons to be in the office even when you don’t have a reason to be in the office.

Individuals themselves can take the initiative too: informally arranged ‘in the office days’ for teams or ‘locally’ based colleagues can be a positive and refreshing change. These also avoid the scenario where one person decides to come into an office, finds very few others there and resolves to not doing so again.

Taken as a whole, flexible working is a major benefit for employees and employers. However, care needs to be taken so that it avoids becoming inflexible – with individuals rarely or never attending an office. The potential consequence is incurring the negative personal consequences of isolation, disengagement and impaired development.

The flexible working opportunity

Flexible working undoubtedly has potential challenges and pitfalls, but the benefits are impossible to ignore.

Organisations must take a considered and careful approach to get their policies, working environments and equipment just right.

By doing so, they can reap the rewards of an empowered and motivated workforce, while avoiding the consequences of an isolated and disjointed workforce.

Jason Fowler, HR Director at Fujitsu UK & Ireland

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