Friday, 7 September 2012

Benefits of Flexible Working

I am currently helping an occupier create a new flexible working environment by facilitating the change management process to ensure the staff buy-in to the new working arrangements. I presented my usual list of the benefits of flexible working (to both the organisation and the individual) but was told to go away and collate hard evidence. The client is an engineering practice and their staff includes analysts and planners; as a consequence their nature is to challenge and not accept consulting recommendations without detailed and rigorous data to back it up.

Fortunately I have access to case studies that I have collected over the years as a workplace consultant, and I also found quite a few published on the web. You can read through the case studies in my occasional paper on Flexible Working Benefits.

The case studies illustrate clear, objective space efficiencies and associated property savings. However they also support claims of the less-tangible (readily measured) benefits. For example, organisations such as BP, DTI, EC Harris, GSK, PwC, Rolls-Royce and the Treasury Solicitors all reported that flexible working enhanced knowledge sharing, communication, team interaction and collaboration. In some cases this resulted in better joined-up services, more cross-selling of services, and ultimately increased profitability. GSK and EC Harris believe their flexible working environments contributed towards increases in profit in the order of 12%. Decreases in travel time between the office and client sites, and reduced absenteeism (from appointments) etc associated with flexible working have resulted in further increases in productivity.

Interestingly, when I presented my evidence on the benefits to the client’s engineers their response was to ask about the dis-benefits. I took this response favourably as it means they had accepted my evidence and had moved on to their next challenge. However, they do have a point – most case studies only present the positive results and brush over the negatives. Not presenting negatives is not just limited to case studies, many new scientific researchers shy away from presenting negative results for fear that they will be criticised. As a consequence they publish only the studies supporting existing theory rather than challenging it. This leads to groupthink and makes a mockery of the view that good theories are falsifiable. For a long time I have suggested we resent case studies “warts ‘n’ all” as we (due to our critical nature) tend to learn more from mistakes than from successes, see the BCO's Guide to Post Occupancy Evaluation.

So I explained to the engineers that my task was to present the benefits and that also very few case studies presented the negatives. The best way to discover what doesn’t work in flexible working is to tour flexible working environments and ask questions (of the end-users not just the design team and sponsors). I have done this for a number of years and my experience is that most flexible working environments will have niggles but they are not “show stoppers”. The issues that prevent a flexible working project from being a success (or from even going ahead) are:
  • lack of buy-in from senior management who lead by example;
  • a focus on reduced space and cost (pushed by the property or FM team) rather than culture, performance or innovation;
  • not fully understanding the business requirement and not aligning the flexible working strategy to it;
  • setting an unrealistic workplace target rather than providing an optimum solution, for example moving from private offices to free-address agile working is a long journey;
  • lack of liaison between IT, HR and FM – all policies and strategies must be aligned;
  • not communicating or involving the staff, not bothering with a change management process.
So despite a focus on space and associated cost savings by the property community, there are many more worthwhile benefits to implementing flexible working. Indeed, flexible working is more successful when the driving force is not space and cost savings but emphasis is placed on these other benefits. Furthermore, the best flexible working projects tend to be ones where the business is leading the project, based on a change in culture or work-style, rather than being promoted by the property team as a means of simply saving space.

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