The disruption of the coronavirus pandemic has, as Gartner puts it, “shattered the paradigm of traditional 9-5 work at the office.” What has emerged as we return to work is the idea of flexible working — and it’s very much here to stay. A Microsoft survey of 30,000 workers around the world found that two-thirds expect flexible working to continue after the pandemic. In fact, it’s estimated that half of staff would quit if denied flexible work schedules.
Here’s how to get flexible work arrangements right within your return to work management.
The challenges of flexible working
As Bloomberg warns, flexible work arrangements are ‘more than just a laptop at home.’ It’s important that flexible working doesn’t lead to an unhealthy working culture.
Employers will need a completely different approach
Bloomberg also advises that for an effective flexible work schedule policy (and return to work guidelines), organizations need to implement predictable or set hours (made flexible by way of employees choosing), compressed days, job sharing, and school term-time working. It also warns of the dangers of hybrid or work from home employees being overlooked for promotion and recognition, which managers will need to actively address.
Flexible working is about more work-life balance, not less
A common misconception among employers is to see flexible work schedules as a benefit only to employees, cautions a report by the World Economic Forum. The reality is that flexible working hours also result in the expectation to be available outside work hours, work overtime, or work wherever you are (for example, while away on vacation). While flexible working has been associated with positive employee outcomes (increased happiness and reduced exhaustion, for example), these employees tend to experience work intensification and burnout. The key is to define expectations clearly at both an organizational and team level and implement fair rules about work-life balance for all employees, not just those with flexible work schedules.
Tips for employees for implementing flexible working hours
Addressing these issues is no easy feat, but it is an opportunity to listen to employees and introduce the measures they need to make flexible working a success for your organization. Here are a few ideas you can try to achieve this, according to The HR Director:
- Ensure employee outputs are measurable. When this is not in place, it becomes borderline impossible for those with flexible work schedules to prove their true value or potentially the additional hours that go into achieving these results.
- Actively listen to employees. Use multiple methods and platforms to work out the best working environment for your staff, taking in geography, job roles, demographics, and family circumstances.
- Try to enable flexibility, regardless of role. Though it may be tempting to automatically say no to employees whose roles require a physical presence in the workplace, it’s very likely you may be able to afford them some form of flexibility, such as days at home or adjusted hours.
- Challenge objections to change. There will be obstacles to introducing a flexible working schedule policy. Take steps to address these concerns — for example, by introducing more robust technology.
- Watch your competition and industry. Are you having recruitment or retention issues? If so, keep an eye on how similar companies are addressing this major change.
- Reconsider internal communication. Flexible working requires robust communication software that enables asynchronous collaboration and a single source of truth for remote or hybrid workers.
- Assess new business opportunities. Flexible working hours will undoubtedly bring with them potential ways to cut costs or become competitive in other areas (for example, call center staff being able to cover a bigger mix of hours or retailers expanding into e-commerce).
Best practices for collaboration within flexible working hours
Flexible working will bring a heavier reliance on both collaboration with remote teams and asynchronous collaboration. For this, employees will need to reframe how collaboration gets done. The Chartered Management Institute advises the following for effective collaboration for teams with flexible work schedules:
- Distinguish between visibility and reachability. Teams do not necessarily need to be ‘always on’ (and expose themselves to remote burnout) for effective collaboration. They may need to be reachable within a certain time frame in their chosen flexible working hours.
- Define exact time frames. Should employees reply to an email or an instant message by the next working day? Make expectations around collaboration clear from the outset, particularly in respect to evenings and weekends. Think about implementing an “on-call” schedule for industries that need it, such as IT.
- Implement ‘core hours’. If there are employees with flexible work schedules working across time zones, you may need to consider assigning ‘core hours’ in which all employees are available for collaboration regardless of where they’re based. Default to asynchronous collaboration if it’s more suitable.
- Build accountability and visibility. Introduce remote working software that enables employees to collaborate in real-time and managers to track that collaboration easily for full transparency.
How to accommodate flexible work schedules outside of 9-5
Consider establishing ‘crossover times’
Organizations might be wondering if it’s wise to ditch the traditional work schedule of 9-5, but it may actually be a very smart move. According to Forbes, holding traditional office hours is becoming an ‘archaic practice.’ So finding ‘crossover’ times for meetings or collaboration between distinct time zones or those with flexible working hours is the best method here.
Encourage employees to ‘own their calendars’
A powerful solution can also be to advise your employees to ‘own their calendars.’ For example, team members may block out 20% of their calendar each day for meetings and ‘buffer’ time. Not only does this reduce stress, but it also provides time to address unexpected tasks or questions that may crop up during the day. Alternatively, think about setting an organization-wide meeting-free afternoon to enable deep work sessions free from interruptions.
Changes in PTO policy for those with flexible working hours
When introducing a flexible work schedule policy, organizations will also need to update their benefits, particularly in relation to paid time off. Employees will expect flexibility when they’re not working, just the same as when they are. According to the Society of Human Rights Management, this may involve strong encouragement to take PTO, enhanced sick leave, and more wellness benefits. Similarly, as many employees were unable to take PTO in 2020, you may want to offer a cash payout for days they were unable to take so they still get a benefit. Alternatively, reset your year from the ‘anniversary’ of the pandemic rather than the calendar year so that there’s not a PTO influx in December.
According to Forbes, some ways employers have made their PTO more flexible include:
- Adding carryover options for unused paid time off
- Introducing paid time off for any reason
- Allowing the ability to borrow from future PTO not yet earned
Flexible work arrangements for salaried vs. hourly employees
Unfortunately, the ability to offer hybrid or flexible working is not always equal. According to the World Economic Forum, hourly employees who were once considered ‘second class citizens’ quickly became essential during the pandemic. It’s time to reflect organizations’ dependency on these workers with benefits such as flexible working.
Hourly employees make up approximately 42% of the US workforce and some 57% earn less than $20 an hour. Research from Gallup found that they are significantly less satisfied than salaried staff with the following:
- Vacation time
- Retirement benefits
- Pay and remuneration
- Safety while working
- Job security
- Opportunity for promotion
- Health insurance benefits
- Recognition of achievements
- Flexibility of hours
While these issues cannot be addressed overnight, flexible working is a good place to start. Studies have found that the vast majority of leaders and employees want their organizations to offer the same benefits to hourly and salaried workers. Your flexible working benefits should be the same, no matter how your employees are paid.