The email surprised employees with its strident tone. Sent by the HR team to the entire London staff of Starcom, one of the world’s largest media planning agencies, it expressed displeasure at how “noticeably empty” the office had become on Fridays and suggested that if physical attendance did not improve, the firm’s flexible working programme could be shut down entirely. “We gave the opportunity to all over the course of a few weeks to improve attendance and in the last two weeks it’s been worse than ever,” the email reportedly told employees.
In many ways, Starcom’s missive, first reported by industry publication Campaign, seems laughably old-fashioned in an era where millions of employees work flexibly – whether in job shares, on a part-time basis or just by working from home on occasion to fit around other responsibilities.
If they are demonstrably productive and hitting their targets, the argument goes, why would it matter which day they chose to work from home? There is no suggestion Starcom’s employees were using the last day of the working week to shirk their responsibilities – just that they found Fridays a particularly convenient time to exercise their rights to work flexibly.
But the firm has a different take. “While we understand that Friday is a common day to work flexibly, we want to bring back the ‘Friday feeling’ in the office,” it said in a statement. And it seems it isn’t alone. People Management has heard anecdotally of numerous businesses that are uneasy with how empty their premises have become on Fridays as it proves disproportionately popular as a time to work flexibly. The question is: should it matter?
There is a bigger picture here, says Alan Price, CEO of consultancy BrightHR. He says a number of companies have contacted his employment law hotline with similar concerns to Starcom’s. But he points out that the benefits of flexibility are considerable: “If employees can maintain productivity and performance working from home on a Friday, it should be remembered that flexible working can be vital in improving overall morale and encouraging continued job satisfaction.”
All employees with more than 26 weeks’ service, he adds, have a right to request flexible working and it must be given fair consideration, with a legitimate business reason supplied if a request is to be refused. Business implications are paramount in this process, but simply clamping down on flexibility ignores the fact people may have caring responsibilities that make certain requirements of their time.
In many working environments, of course, the nature of flexibility is dictated by customer relationships or safety considerations; in a supermarket, for example, working from home is simply impossible and flexible work must be accommodated in other, more nuanced, ways such as greater control over shift patterns. The difficulty of implementing such ideas is one of the reasons the uptake of flexible working has plateaued, according to a CIPD study, Megatrends: Flexible working.
Currently, 27 per cent of the workforce has access to flexible working arrangements, but that level has not changed since 2010. A recent poll of workers by the TUC found that almost a third of all flexible working requests are being turned down by employers.
The CIPD is co-chairing a government taskforce to examine ways to encourage businesses to be more flexible, while a Conservative MP has introduced a bill to parliament that would require all jobs to be advertised flexibly by default. The government has also launched a flexible working jobs board with more than 40,000 vacancies.
But if companies that have enabled flexibility have difficulty managing it, the real issue may be a lack of trust, says Marilyn Devonish, a consultant and corporate trainer. Employers need to trust work is being done, whether they can see people in the office or not, and communicate this to clients and colleagues. And employees need to trust they can take advantage of flexibility without it affecting how they are perceived by peers and bosses.
“It’s not simply about whether staff are taking liberties, the real question is are those employees doing their job? If productivity is down and work isn’t being completed on time, then of course boundaries need to be set,” says Devonish. “If your job is to process a set number of reports in a day and speak to key clients, and you get that done early in the afternoon, either the job needs rescoping or the employee can congratulate themselves on a job well done and go pick up their kids from school.
“Often the reality of the situation is: manage better and trust your staff.”