Author: Michael Armstrong, FCA and ICAEW Regional Director for the Middle East, Africa and South Asia (MEASA)
The coronavirus crisis is forcing many people to work from home to reduce social contact and minimise the associated risk of transmitting the virus. However, many organisations may decide to continue allowing more flexible working once the crisis is over, as they see the many advantages for employees, and the benefits for employers willing to embrace more agile practices.
According to the 2019 Global Workspace Survey from IWG, 50% of global employees work outside their office’s main headquarters for at least two and a half days a week. It also revealed that when faced with two similar employment offers, 80% of employees would turn down the one that didn’t offer flexible working.
A lot has been written about how employees want more flexible working, but nobody seems to address the employers who are expected to implement it. Setting up such systems can be challenging and is often left to the decision makers who have spent their whole careers with the mind-set that long hours in the office are the route to success, with no prior experience of other ways of working.
How to go about it?
The formula for success rests on three central elements – trust, teamwork and technology.
Having a culture that rewards merit and skill rather than presenteeism enables trust. To enable the flexible worker to be effective, they need to be given the autonomy to control their own time and to prioritise their workload.
Adopting a team coverage model is helpful. For clients to know that they can talk to other members of your team in your absence is re-assuring and demonstrates a high level of integration. If you are working flexibly, you need at times to be able to delegate upwards, sideways and downwards and to know that others are willing to cover for you without resentment.
It would be impossible to talk about remote working without acknowledging the role of technology as a key enabler of mobility. There are many tools out there that can help staff to stay in touch virtually. Video conferencing tools have significantly improved in recent years, and you can easily sign up to services such as Skype or Zoom for virtual meetings. There are, of course, potential risks of malicious cyber-attacks as organisations increase their reliance on remote working and online services. So, organisations must pay particular attention to home working practices to ensure that cyber risks are managed as far as possible and staff have the resources they need to operate securely.
Another enabler of many emerging technologies is 5G – the next generation of mobile technologies. Once delivered, 5G will provide faster speeds, better reliability and greater capacity for individuals and businesses.
What happens if somebody abuses the flexibility?
If you insist that everybody has to be in the office by 9:00 am then you presumably have a disciplinary policy regarding people who fail to meet this target. Flexible working is no different. If staff fail to meet their objectives, then their manager needs to investigate further and help them to change their behaviour.
What are the benefits to employers?
Flexible work arrangements offer many benefits to employers. Such benefits include:
Staff can often work a few hours from home in case of minor illnesses or child sickness instead of losing a full day.
Businesses can increase headcount without having to increase office size.
The business is set up to accommodate remote working through severe weather conditions or pandemics such as the recent coronavirus outbreak.
Less competition with staff setting up on their own or moving elsewhere to organisations which allow more flexible working.
Less time spent reintegrating individuals back into the workforce if they take a short career break to raise a family.
The ability to retain experienced staff for longer but on reduced hours.
While remote working has many benefits, it’s not without its pitfalls. Maintaining discipline, for example, can be particularly challenging for some home workers when procrastination sets in. In some cases, working away from a corporate environment can also create a feeling of isolation. Although many people enjoy the solitude, others thrive on the daily human interaction that comes with working in an office, so it’s important that employees are given the opportunity to choose which way of working is best for them.
The demand for greater flexibility is on the rise, and it will form a cornerstone of successful future businesses. Getting it right can transform company culture, breeding high-trust relationships and high-performing employees, which ultimately translates into a positive impact on the bottom line.