Working hard or hardly working: Why office-bound work doesn't guarantee productivity  

Over the last five years, the benefits of flexible working seemed to be sinking in. According to the 2020 Modern Families Index, over half (55%) of working parents feel confident discussing family-related issues with their employer, rising from 47% in 2015. Half of working parents said that their organisation cares about their work-life balance, compared to 42% in 2015. Overall, more parents now feel that flexible working is a genuine option in their workplace. Yet, in the last five years, the number of parents actually working flexibly has dropped from 58% to 55%.  

When I talk to organisations about their flexible working policies, their response boils down to the same disconnect; their policies could deliver good outcomes – for both the organisation and its employees -- but they aren’t well implemented. Communications between HR and Management are often inconsistent. Put simply, attitudes towards flexible working have evolved at a faster rate than the mechanisms which make it possible.

We’ve made a lot of progress, but there’s still a lot to be done to ensure employers and workers aren’t missing out on the mutual benefits of flexible working. Employers who offer flexible working gain a larger recruitment pool because they can draw talent from areas further away. Employees working from home can use time previously spent being martyrs to their commute productively. Time and again, we’ve seen that employees who feel fulfilled at both home and work are more motivated, making them more productive, and ultimately more profitable for the organisation.

In my experience, Management teams split into two camps: the champions of agile working and its harshest critics. The latter are often up-in-arms about their idea of what flexible working might mean; it’s a fear of the unknown compounded by the suspicion that junior staff members will require supervision, and ‘giving in’ to flexible working arrangements will be taken as managerial weakness. They worry about the lack of face to face communication, though of course flexible working isn’t all or nothing – agile workers still spend time in the office, with Facetime and Skype filling in the gaps. Physical presence in the office doesn’t automatically increase productivity. As our research shows, three quarters (75%) of professionals aged 25-34 already feel worn out by the type of work and the environment which they work in. And it’s not a millennial problem; as many of 57% of all professionals feel the same.

‘Being on’ 24 7 has lost its cultural cache. Over half of parents are working extra, unpaid hours to stay on top of unrealistic workloads. Employers need to understand that designing roles which can be fulfilled within contracted hours will lead to happier, healthier, and more cost-effective workers. Employees who are routinely emotionally and physically exhausted are more likely to lose confidence in themselves and the point of their work. Having a flexi-culture is also increasingly important to employees, making organisations which take it seriously more likely to attract and retain talent. The generation joining the workforce today place flexibility and work-life balance far higher on their list of priorities than previous generations. Overall, millennial parents are more likely to work flexibly (62%), compared to half of parents aged 36-55.

What we’re talking about is retraining corporate muscle memory. Concerns about productivity and cross-team collaboration are legitimate and need to be discussed as such. Flexible working doesn’t mean no structure, it means implementing a different kind of system, and as with any system, flexibility requires testing, measurement, ongoing communication between Managers and employers, and adjustment. It doesn’t happen overnight. To sustain progress, organisations need to encourage questions like, Will the delivery of existing goals be affected by the new arrangement? Will there be an impact on the wider team and how are we to manage that fairly? What additional support should we be providing?

In order for flexible working practices to catch up with the massive shift in attitudes, organisations have to establish a trial period for flexible working arrangements with a clear sense of how they will measure success at the end of that period. Amongst parents who don’t work flexibly, more than three quarters (77%) indicated they want to, but almost a third (32%) reported that flexible working is ‘not available’ where they work. Demands for flexible working are only going to increase. Organisations which ignore them will lose talent in droves. Currently, almost half (49%) of workers often lose focus at work. After all, if you prioritise productivity, why does it matter where or when your employees get their work done?