Foundations for successful flexible working: how to embed flexibility
by Mary Mercer, Working Families
Most organisations have in place strong policies about the Right to Request flexible working, especially as this right now applies to everyone, regardless of their caring responsibilities. Many organisations have had their policies in place, at least in embryonic form for a good ten years. So would we all say that flexible working has now become part of the fabric of our organisation? That flexible working “is just how we roll” nothing out of the ordinary? Or are we still clinging to the more traditional ways of working (regardless of whether they suit our clients or ourselves) unsure of why we just cannot get flexible working really embedded in our cultures?
In our report Moving Mountains we examined a four stage model of culture change. This model had been proposed by the Families and Work Institute in New York. The four stages are shown below:
Stage 1 : Work and Family Initiatives
Stage 2 : Flexible Working Policies (policy and compliance)
Stage 3 : Culture Change (hearts and minds)
Stage 4 : Work Redesign
We concluded that many organisations were on the brink of moving from stage 2 to stage 3 and that some were moving towards stage 4. Nearly ten years on from that report, the situation hasn’t changed much and many organisations are still battling to change hearts and minds. Changing culture and ultimately redesigning work are, we all know, the ultimate challenges for an organisation, but absolutely essential if flexible working is to be more than a dusty old policy that people don’t really know about and really don’t believe. We reiterate here what it takes to get from the stage of policy compliance to culture change and beyond in order to really embed flexible working.
Winning hearts and minds has to start with a business case and for flexible working that means moving the argument along from wanting to accommodate certain employee groups to believing and being able to demonstrate that flexible working is “good for business”, that it enables you to meet customer demand, that it enables you to retain your skilled and experienced workforce and that it enables you to really value diversity. Secondly senior people have to be convinced by this business case and champion flexible working from the very top. In our most recent Top Employers for Working Families report 85 per cent of organisations who took part say they now derive support for flexible working from their main board. Senior commitment is therefore high, although the senior supporters are still often drawn from HR. Those who champion flexible working must consistently support and press the business case. The ideal was expressed by one organisation who took part in our Moving Mountains study: “It’s driven by the CEO who believes if you can create space for people to achieve life balance that will give you the most significant competitive edge.”
The third stage in changing hearts and minds is to change organisational conversations: to have consistent, clear messages and information about flexible working which reach everyone. This may start out as newsletters, briefings and intranet pages but, to be successful, must be how people talk, the language that they use and how far they really believe their message, especially at management levels. In our paper “Thrive” we look at the behavioral reasons why flexible working can be so successful in one team and so weak in another when they are underpinned by the same policies and organisational values. We have known since the late 1960s that the words we use account for only a tiny proportion of perceived meaning in any communication (approximately 7%). The remainder is derived from behaviours such as tone of voice, posture and facial expression. So if our managers simply share information about flexible working without being convinced, everyone in the team is going to know how they feel and what their real approach is going to be. Managers can also feel overwhelmed by flexible working: the choices that people have; understanding the business need and worrying about managing people remotely. As we say in ‘Thrive’ ”where those faced with choices neither feel the confidence nor the capability to make a choice, the instinctive behaviour is to control as much as possible thereby minimising the need to make choices.”
Managers not trained nor skilled in managing flexible working are unlikely to be having the right conversations, or behaviourally conveying the right messages, or ultimately believing that flexible working is good for the business. They can become a serious culture change blockage.
In our most recent Top Employers for Working Families Benchmarking Report nearly half (48 per cent) of organisations identified lack of line manager skills and knowledge as a barrier to flexible and high performance working in 2014, and 28 per cent reported a lack of support amongst line managers for flexible working. This is a significant issue, and points to a disconnect between the conversations happening at the top of our organisations, in terms sponsorship and advocacy, and the actual reality on the ground. Training for line managers is mixed. More than 20 per cent of organisations in our benchmark don’t train their managers in managing flexible and high performance teams and, where training is provided, it is only compulsory in half of organisations. Addressing the acknowledged barrier of lack of line manager skill through more and improved training is something that employers need to seriously consider if they ever want to be successful in embedding culture change around flexible working. The hearts and minds of line managers have clearly not yet been won.
We recommend two more steps in achieving a cultural shift around flexible working. The first is better monitoring. We know from our benchmarking that this is slowly improving but many organisations are still not really getting to grips with monitoring and measuring flexible working ie where it operates well, where people are reluctant to ask or reluctant to implement and the real impact flexibility is having on the business. Identifying those managers who are not convinced is a crucial step in targeting training and support. We recommend global employee surveys, the use of focus groups, regular management information on contractualworking patterns, information from exit interviews and performance reviews and reviews of formal requests for flexible working.
The final step is to integrate flexibility and diversity activities into mainstream policies so that they do not stand alone but instead thread through everything you do or, in fact, underpin everything you do. Recruitment policy, talent management, promotion, managing performance and engagement, at the very least, should all reflect how you encourage and protect a flexible and diverse workforce. Most of us are looking for a degree of flexibility in our working lives, working differently not necessarily working less. All our practices and policies need to reflect this feature of modern life.
 Moving Mountains Working Families 2006
 Top Employers for Working Families Benchmark Report, Working Families 2014
 THRIVETM: identifying the behaviours essential to a sustainable, high performing and flexible team. Working Families 2014