Don't fight flexible work. It's productive. And it's already here.

A couple of months ago the CEO of my company declared all roles should be flexible. We've had policies on flexible working for a number of years but usage was sporadic and very much depended on a “Leadership Lottery” - if you had a leader who "got it" then flex was just part of the day to day norms and no big deal.

But if you moved somewhere else or inherited a leader who didn't “get it”, then working for the same company could feel very different indeed. Since I wrote my first article around the misconceptions holding back flexible working about a year ago for ANZ BlueNotes, we have not only amended our policy but I have spent a lot of time talking to our employees and those from other organisations on this topic, to try to understand why it works so well in some areas and not at all in others.

"There is also confusion about why flex matters as a business priority and the ever broadening definition of what it actually means."
Susie Babani, Chief Human Resources Officer | ANZ

The misconceptions around "presenteeism", "flex employees lack commitment, "it's all too hard" and "this is only for junior people" are alive and well in the workplace today but there is also confusion about why flex matters as a business priority and the ever broadening definition of what it actually means. For flex to be successful leaders need to adopt a "Can-Do" approach to how, where and when work is done.

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Photographer: Arsineh Houspian

They need to let go of old habits and not be fearful. They must also understand why flex benefits them, their customers and their employees. They themselves need to role model flex working to make it "ok" for everyone else. And, critically, they need to trust their employees.

As Anthony Mitchell, Strategic Transformation & Leadership Development Specialist, says: "Personally, I've seen many cases where employees who are enabled flexibly achieve far greater productivity. Some take advantage, of course. But many - whose circumstances genuinely require it - view it as a privilege (because it's rare), value it immensely and increase productivity as a result. My observation is that such people reciprocate by increasing performance, and have a FAR greater sense of loyalty to the organisation: a mutually beneficial outcome."

Flexible work is something most managers already do on an ad-hoc basis - although many don't define it as flex. When I attend a town hall meeting of managers I will ask how many of them have ever been asked something like "can I leave at 3pm next Thursday so I can see my daughter in her school play? Usually three quarters of the room put up their hands. And when I then ask "and did you say yes?", virtually the same number put up their hands. So, it's easy to point out that they are already enabling flexible working without even realising it. It's not that scary.

Of course, in a world where employees are trusted, the revised scenario would be on the Thursday morning the employee would say "by the way, Boss, I'll be leaving at 3pm today to see my daughter in her school play. All the work stuff is sorted and I'll see you tomorrow”.

The big difference in this scenario is the removal of the "permission" beforehand - because it is already implicit  it is ok and you can figure out your workload for yourself - a much more trusting environment. Note: I have not suggested the employee just disappears at 3pm without telling anyone where or why - I think that lacks courtesy. This needs to be a two-way street.  All the evidence suggests even if employees choose not to work flexibly in a fixed pattern, they want to know it is ok to work flexibly on occasion when they need to – it could be to care for unexpectedly sick children or elders, needing to be at home for a delivery or to get ready for a special function.

At ANZ, our latest My Voice (employee engagement) survey shows employees who have utilised at least one of our flex policies, even if only on an ad hoc basis (from part time to reduced work weeks to working from home) are 6 per cent more engaged than those who do not and if they are also high performing individuals they are 8 per cent more engaged. Given we know that engaged employees provide more discretionaly effort, that's a good business reason for taking  flexible work seriously.“I love flexible working! I've moved my working cycle in line with my colleagues in Manila and closer to our team in Bengaluru so I'm available more, and I can make my school drops on Wednesday mornings without stressing, which is so important to our family / work balance.” David Thompson; Risk Manager, Risk & Control – ANZ Global Shared Services, Group Technology, Services and Operations (GTSO).

And then there are the millennials (and there are more and more of them in the workplace) - roughly those under the age of 35 - for whom the concept of needing to go to one place on certain days of the week and at a particular time in order to work is something they just do not understand.

As far as they are concerned work and play and research and downtime are so interchangeable as to be indistinguishable from one another. They see no issue, even at interview stage, in advising us they cycle every Wednesday at 5pm and attend two gym classes a week at 11am. They just cannot comprehend this could be interpreted as lack of commitment to work or as an indication of lack of interest in their careers.

In their world, hours are "Whenever" the office is "Wherever". If we are to attract and retain the digital generation we need to be open to moulding work around them rather than demanding them to mould around us or they will quickly move to places where things operate flexibly. Recruiters globally have told us that candidates check out availability of flexible working options and prioritise towards those companies that pro-actively endorse it.

“Upon graduation some of my colleagues moved to the '9 to 5' day space as it was what suited them, but many night owls wanted to start later. Why get stuck in rush hour traffic at 8 when you can enjoy the morning before starting at 12 with minimal traffic on the way in? The world and the people in it are changing; we need to keep up with customer and employee demand.” Kate Withers; Contact Centre Service Consultant,  ANZ New Zealand

When I ask managers why they might be reluctant to enable flexible working, these are some of the common concerns:

“It's just not possible in my patch - people need to be here to use systems”

I understand in some environments people need to be physically present, for example, in a branch or they need to be able to access a system that for security reasons is not accessible from other locations. But this doesn't mean some forms of flex can't be made available - such as reduced working weeks, 4 X 10 hour days, term time working or staggered hours. There are so many variations on flexibility I have yet to find a role where it cannot be provided in some form.

“What about my customers?”

Well customers often want to access us flexibly too. By responding to their needs, flexible working arrangements can deliver a positive business outcome as well.

"We have now increased our branch sales performance which I believe to be a direct result of flexibility at work. We are now available to our customers over a longer working day; we are more available over our busiest times. This has directly increased our customer service, improved customer satisfaction and increased branch sales performance.''Ben Bakker; Branch Manager, Molesworth Branch, ANZ New Zealand

“What if it doesn't work - then I'm stuck with it”

My view? Nothing is forever. I'm a big believer in pilots to test and see how things go. So for instance if you are nervous about a proposed job share, then agree a fixed period to give it a go and review together at the end of that time. See what you've learned and what changes need to take place. It is rare you can't learn how to make something work if you are prepared to try it out in the first place. So much is linked to that "Can Do" attitude - of course needed by all parties.

“Flex means fewer hours will be worked - how will everything get done?”

As someone who works flexibly - I can attest that hours can be long and flexible!

“Everyone will work from home or Starbucks and no-one will ever turn up here. How do I build a collaborative team?"

In fact the evidence suggests otherwise. Most employees place a lot of value in interacting and learning from their colleagues in a face to face environment and, even if given complete freedom to choose, tend to come into the office most of the time. Of course as a manager it is perfectly reasonable for you to require attendance at certain times too.

“Some people want flexibility for things I don't think matter that much, such as learning the piano or attending a zumba class. Surely this is only for Mums with small kids to look after?”

For flexibility to be effective it needs to be made available to as many people as possible in the company without any prejudgements on what people use their non-work time for, whether this be further education, sport or to provide care or anything else.

''Since 2008 I have been starting work late on a Wednesday morning each fortnight as I volunteer with the Foundation of the Blind. I record sections of the newspaper into their Telephone Information System, allowing members of the Foundation to ring in at any time to listen to interesting articles. It is fantastic that ANZ allows me to do this and the Foundation of the Blind certainly appreciates the kindness and understanding of my management over the years, giving ANZ a good reputation as a community player.'' Barbara Murphy; Operations Analyst, Transaction Services, GTSO, ANZ New Zealand

“If people work flexibly, they can't possibly deliver as much as those who are here every day; so obviously they can never get a high performance rating or a big bonus.”

This one drives me nuts! It is patently obvious (to me at least) that an employee working three days a week can be just as outstanding as one who works five days a week. Can they do as much work? Well "probably not" - if they are only working 24 hours rather than 40 but if you adjust goals and focus your reviews on the quality of what is delivered during working hours then of course any employee can be outstanding (including the Saturday only worker).

At HubSpot their mantra is "Results matter more than the hours we work" and "results matter more than where we produce them". I think that attitude is very helpful.

So please, no more sly looks and comment when people come and go outside of "normal" working hours, we need leaders who are courageous and creative to make the change. We need a fundamental rethink about how, where and when work is done - this should be in support of our customers' needs as well as enabling our employees to deliver the best results possible, in a way that works for all stakeholders.

Note: Stephen Jenner recommended "Remote. No office required" by the 37 signals team.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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