How to design flexible work that drives competitive advantage

There are three important ways in which flexible working policies and practices should be designed in order to achieve competitive advantage

There are three important ways in which flexible work policies and practices should be designed in order to achieve competitive advantage and improve the acquisition and retention of talent, according to an expert in the area.

A growing number of companies, such as Telstra (where “all roles flex” was rolled out in 2014), ASX and PwC have policies where employees can choose how and where they work.

“This requires a change in culture where it is not only acceptable to work from anywhere, but also future proofs the organisation to attract and retain the best talent,” said Yvette Blount, a senior lecturer at Macquarie University’s Faculty of Business and Economics as well as the Research Coordinator for the Australian Anywhere Working Research Network.

“A business case for flexible work as well as measuring how flexible work supports an organisation’s strategic objectives should be included in the policies and procedures.”

Second, Blount said each job and each individual should be assessed for the appropriateness of working remotely.

In the process, jobs may need to be redesigned, for example, so that the job is more autonomous.

“It is a mistake to assume all workers would like the opportunity to work remotely,” she said.

“The work place is more than just a place for work. The work place is a source of social interaction.

“The extent to which social interaction is important to each worker will depend on a number of factors including the level of the job (e.g. managerial, administration), the stage of life and caring responsibilities and how much social interaction is important to the individual.”

A third key consideration, according to Blount, is that anywhere working creates new complexities in workplace dynamics for workers (managers, employees, freelancers) – making communication and coordination more challenging, despite sophisticated information and communications technologies.

“Managers need the skills and capabilities to ensure workers are engaged with the organisation and have opportunities for professional development and promotion,” she said.

“This includes how often face to face interaction should occur and to what extent, with the manager, with team members, with customers.

“How do managers deal with employee engagement, performance management and organisational culture?” she asked.

“It is a mistake to assume all workers would like the opportunity to work remotely”

According to Deloitte’s latest Global Human Capital Trends: Leading in the New World of Work report, work is becoming characterised by a multigenerational workforce, networked, globalised and contingent (e.g. freelancers).

Roles such as IT professionals, computer programmers, accountants and engineers are increasingly engaged as freelancers for specific projects, Blount noted.

“The evolution of technology, the globalised nature of multinational organisations and other social and economic changes have increased the spatial mobility of workers,” she said.

“The technology is an enabler but not sufficient.”

Blount said workers need the right tools and an appropriate level of support to ensure a secure environment (to guard against loss of intellectual property for example).

Anywhere working options also broaden the labour pool and provides opportunities to be more inclusive of part-time workers, disabled workers, carers and retirees.

However, for some categories of workers, she said there may be additional issues around reduced visibility and career advancement when working remotely.

“The workers more likely to experience the negative connotations of anywhere work include women with dependent children and sales and marketing teleworkers,” she said.

Researchers have found that hybrid telework (where workers work some of the time at home, for example, three days a week at home and two in an office) improves productivity and employee engagement, Blount noted.

On the other hand, in 2013, Yahoo and HP either banned or significantly restricted the ability of their employees to work from home.

Organisations often have difficulty in developing a business case for quantifiable benefits and costs associated with anywhere working, according to Blount, who said the three main reasons that anywhere working has been more of an evolution rather than a revolution are:

1. Flexible work policies provide an option for managers to refuse a flexible work request on reasonable business grounds. Anywhere working may only be available to those employees who are able to bargain with their manager/employer.

There are minimal statistics available that measure who works flexibly, who has been refused a flexible work arrangement and the implications to the business.

2. An unresolved problem is the skills required for managing remote workers. Managers are not always convinced that working from a remote location is beneficial to the business.

“Anywhere working (from home, a co-working centre or other location) is often perceived as a ‘privilege’ (for the benefit of the employee) that than a right or a way to provide a better service to customers, said Blount.

3. Anywhere working creates new complexities in workplace dynamics for workers (managers, employees, freelancers), making communication and coordination more challenging despite sophisticated information and communications technologies.

“Being ‘seen’ in the office is considered necessary in many organisations/industries (for example, banking and finance) for career progression,” she said.

“Not being visible can lead to social and professional isolation.”

“Managers should be aware of the issues related to overwork that can lead to stress and burnout or conversely workers that may not be as productive as they could be”

However, organisations can strike the right balance with anywhere working, while enabling/improving collaboration, teamwork and engagement, said Blount.

“Managers will need skills to achieve their objectives through workers who may be permanent employees through to temporary workers who are highly skilled,” she said.

“Managers are likely to have a core group of permanent employees and the rest of the team made up of freelancers.

“Managers will need to have the skills to be able to recruit and retain both permanent workers and freelancers including managing performance.”

Organisations should also have a strategic approach to managing flexible work and workers, Blount added.

This includes onboarding and offboarding policies and procedures, job design, recruitment and retention, management support and culture.

“Managers will need to ensure that workers are working at the right location for the right type of work,” she said.

“Therefore, if collaboration is required with co-workers, is appropriate to use technology or does it require a face-to-face interaction? How frequently should co-workers interact? How is work productivity measured?”

Other policies that should be considered are related to managing flexible work and technology.

“The first is the availability requirement of workers. Are there policies around when a worker should be answering emails and phone calls?”

In France, Blount said right to disconnect laws are being considered where workers are not obligated to respond to emails and messages after hours.

Similarly, in 2012, Volkswagen stopped its Blackberry servers from sending messages to workers after hours.

The second related issue is the work/home divide, said Blount.

“Managers should be aware of the issues related to overwork that can lead to stress and burnout or conversely workers that may not be as productive as they could be,” she said.

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