Flexible working practices

Flexibility in the workplace equates to improved productivity and a happier,
more stable workforce. A growing body of research consistently proves this, so
why aren’t businesses embracing modern working practices more and benefiting
from the changes?

Business still seems slow to act and management styles that remain reticent
to remote working are often to blame.

The latest research into working practices at mid-market companies shows that
just over half of company boards in this range consider it a boardroom issue. It
should be a concern to directors considering that new research shows the UK can
no longer claim to be the most flexible working environment within Europe.

More worryingly, perhaps, is the finding that even fewer (43%) are discussing
mobile technology as a way of allowing staff, in particular, management, to work

That said, the research commissioned by Microsoft Dynamics revealed that 85%
of mid-market businesses offer some form of flexible working to their employees,
with just over a third of those businesses claiming to have a nine-to

Productivity gains

More promising were their findings that British businesses are no longer
focused on the outdated concept of time as the core measure of worker
productivity and commitment. Instead, mid-market businesses are now looking at
more sophisticated ways of measuring productivity, with two-thirds assessing
outputs rather than hours worked.

It’s definitely progress. Indeed, almost half said that the ability to work
flexibly in their organisations had increased in the past five years. Again the
study found that where flexibility had increased so too had productivity. There
were also improvements in employee morale, knowledge sharing, stress levels,
staff turnover and absenteeism.

Nevertheless, the findings shocked Microsoft FD Paul Hart, who spends more
time with clients over spreadsheets.

‘It was surprising that my peers were doing less customer facing roles – sp
ending more time internally focusing on work issues there,’ says Hart.

The study found that MDs or CEOs are more likely to spend time out of the
office than FDs. But FDs’ remote working still only amounted to 19% of the
overall working week, while for an MD it was 22%.

Finance directors said most of their time (66%) was spent on internal issues.
The remainder of the time was spent dealing with the outside world, while only a
third was spent with customers.

Hart argues that with today’s technology there is no excuse for spending
almost two-thirds of your time sat behind a desk.

‘We give staff the right technology to do their jobs and they’re happier.
They have smart phones so that staff can work remotely and we have flexible
working so that they can work differently,’ says Hart. With the majority of
Microsoft Dynamics’ staff owning a laptop, it means that 95% can work remotely.
Then again one would expect no less of a technology company.

Still the company is a prime example of how a modern business can be run
productively with a happy workforce. Hart points out that their attrition rate
is less than 10%. For a benchmark, some accountancy firms suffer from an
attrition rate as high as 27%.

Set in the context of the latest research by the Cranfield School of
Management, it is increasingly up to British companies to make sure they offer
competitive, flexible working arrangements to attract and retain the best talent
and ensure their products get sold.

Cranfield found that the UK’s flexible labour market might no longer be the
source of competitive advantage that it once was. Historically, the UK has been
seen as providing a more flexible approach to working arrangements over its
European neighbours. But this research indicates otherwise.

Only 48% of UK organisations offer their staff flexitime compared to 90% in
Germany, 94% in Sweden and 92% in Finland.

The proportion of British organisations using other flexible working
practices is more comparable to the rest of Europe, including part-time working
(97%), job-share (55%) and home working (32%). But Cranfield suggests these
results provide little evidence of UK superiority in terms of flexibility in the
labour market.

Professor Shaun Tyson, director of Cranfield School of Management’s human
resource research centre, says: ‘While there may be more restrictive labour laws
in some European countries than in the UK, the development of flexible working
time and flexibility of contract is almost universal. Some of these practices
are seen by employees as part of the social contract in that they produce
family-friendly working conditions, as well as offering efficiency savings for

Everyone’s a winner

Indeed, there is a clear link between people management and company
performance. ‘There was a serious correlation,’ says Rebecca Clarke, research
manager at the CIPD. Clarke says that changes have to benefit the individual as
well as the company. ‘We see flexible working as a win-win situation. If
employees want to work later in the day then that’s fine, for example.’

UK legislation is heading in the right direction to ensure that business
implements social-friendly working arrangements. Since 2004, parents with
children under the age of six, or disabled children under 18 have the legal
right to request to work flexibly in the UK.

Although Clarke hails this as a step in the right direction, her enthusiasm
is tempered. She argues that only when the legislation for the right to request
flexible working is expanded to all employees and not just those with children,
‘will real equality be achieved’. This, she says, isn’t only important for
employees, but industry will also benefit greatly by being able to attract those
often excluded from the workforce, such as older mothers wanting to return to

It will be vitally important, however, to maintain the balance between
flexibility for staff and productivity for business. When that balance begins to
tilt either way that’s when it will be time to review the demands on business
and the benefits to staff.

British business clearly still has some way to go to ensure flexibility
works. With competition hotting up around the globe, management must be quicker
to grasp the developments in working practices, social changes and new
technologies so that they get their jobs done better with more contented and
motivated staff.

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