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Why we need a fresh approach to fair flexibility

23 Nov 2020 By Sarah Jackson

Lockdown restrictions have forced businesses to rethink what flexible working looks like for different types of employee, says Sarah Jackson 

Even before the crisis, flexible working had become lazily conflated with working from home, with the result that I would often hear managers say that it was not possible to introduce greater flex into their organisation because it could not be done fairly. Because frontline or customer-facing staff could not work from home, flexibility could not be introduced for other colleagues.

But eyes have been opened this year. Many people have been making a success of working remotely, and have also learned that flexing when they work, to accommodate childcare or other family lockdown responsibilities, has not prevented them from delivering well against objectives. Meanwhile, many staff whose roles required them to be physically present in their workplace have also used flexible working during the crisis, as teams have had to learn to flex working hours and patterns to remain safe and meet social distancing guidelines. 

I do not believe that there is going to be a rush for contractual home working once this crisis is over. But I do expect there to be significant demand to retain the time and control gains that people have come to value. It will be difficult for managers to refuse such requests when employees can show that objectives have continued to be met, despite having changed when or where they have been working this year.

So where does that leave the manager who is worried about fairness? The starting point is that fair flexibility does not mean that everyone must have access to the same kinds of flexible working. What is flexible for an office worker will not be the same as flexibility for their colleague on the shop floor. But both will value the manager’s trust and confidence, and perform better, when they are each in their different ways able to exercise more choice and control over how they work.

Lockdown and today’s ongoing restrictions have obliged everyone to be open-minded about work design and delivery. Fresh thinking about fairness and flexibility should embrace and retain this attitude, to build on what we have learned this year. The importance to performance of prizing employee wellbeing, and of committing time and thought to communication within and between teams, has also been reinforced for many organisations. The foundations are there for wider, more confident application of flexible working. The key now is to understand that fairness begins with equity of access, supported by clarity about the role and what is possible within it.

Communicating this to your people means establishing the principle that flexibility is available to everyone. And also being honest that it will necessarily differ between roles, teams and business areas, while being equally clear that the process for accessing flexibility and for making requests will be the same for everyone. The groundwork for successful implementation is to set out the explicit business parameters for each team, and within them to express clear and understandable objectives and deliverables. And then it will be about stepping back to let teams work out their own protocols, to empower colleagues to agree among themselves what flexible working means in their particular part of the business, and to support each other to make it work for everyone’s benefit. Even within a small team, personal constraints and preferences may mean that different people work differently to achieve the same objectives.

The words of a senior manager in a business that had not before this year made much use of flexible working express this well: “We have to be open-minded, and employees have to be open-minded, in terms of what is workable and what isn’t workable. As long as you’re being open-minded, fairness and consistency is key across everything.”

Sarah Jackson is a flexible working expert and visiting professor at Cranfield University School of Management

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