Are you working flexibly? – By Natasha Stone

Flexible working is the big buzz word of the moment. Not to mention that we’ve all seen the articles extolling the virtues of four day weeks, grabbing your laptop and a comfy bean bag to focus on your work in the local coffee shop. There’s endless stock images of young and trendy new-age workers in jeans and t-shirts and an idyllic smile. This is working flexibly, and of course, you’re being incredibly productive, and not a pen and paper in sight.

The reality is often much different, as many of us know, and there’s a number of threads which are attached to flexible working, where such images as described above, really don’t help with the uptake, or indeed appetite for respect for flexible working. Let’s address a few of these.

Age and experience.

The typical image above seems to indicate that only the young and trendy want to work flexibly. Which is then translated by those who don’t understand, into ‘they don’t know what a hard day at work looks like – they only want to work flexibly because it means they can shirk off the hard stuff and pretend they’re working when really they’re surfing Instagram and Facebook ‘

In all honesty, with attitudes like that – I wouldn’t blame anyone with wanting to get out the office and away from that negativity. Perhaps the reality is more that new workers coming into the working world see the opportunities that are now open to us and simply take them. Why would they understand or see these opportunities as anything but normal in today’s working world? New entrants to work, would know no different.

It highlights again, outdated attitudes that a hard day at work means that you have to suffer in order to be productive. I would suggest that having a bad day more often than not, means you’re in the wrong line of work, or workplace. Flexible working isn’t just for the young – it’s for everyone. Work/life balance is important, and how you choose to balance your life and work, is very personal to each individual case. What works for one, might not be what works for another. Who are we to judge why someone wants to work flexibly. Or indeed, why does there have to be a supposedly valid reason to work flexibly, and in which case, who polices what’s considered valid, or not?

Presenteeism

Are we really that fixated on being able to see someone in the same seat in the same office every day for 12 hours a day to be reassured that they’re actually working as hard as they should be? Surely output is the more measurable element here, rather than visibly watching someone? Even if you can see someone, can you really be sure they’re actually working? Perhaps you should move to the next desk to make sure they’re earning their keep. Hang on – if you’re keeping that close an eye, are you actually working yourself?

Communication

This is really the key to the flexible working debate. If you can’t see someone, how do you know they’re available to be contacted – that they’re not just down the garden catching the last rays of summer, or getting a few minutes more in bed?

A big proponent of assessing whether someone’s working is the availability to respond to communications. In a traditional 9-5 situation, then you would expect your queries and requirements to be responded to within these timescales. You don’t need to double check where someone is or what hours they’re doing, it can all be assumed that they fit nicely into the 9-5 timescale and anything outside that is no-mans land.

But if you’re working flexibly, any hour of the day is up for grabs, and those working 9-5 could be seen as not pulling their weight as much as the flexible worker who’s still on line at 23:45pm. Again, this is a nod to presenteeism (see above). If you’re working flexibly, are you still only doing the hours you’re contracted to work, are you in fact doing twice as much to ensure that communication is achieved sufficiently across everyone’s working hours? Do your colleagues know what hours you’re doing? Are they ever regular hours? Has everyone who needs to know what you’re up to got access to your diary? Do you even keep your diary updated sufficiently?

Communication is important to ensure workers feel connected to their company and colleagues – and perhaps flexible working can be combined with ‘normal time’ working to best effect in order to ensure cohesion of a working group. Open communication can be the only way forward for flexible working. Not knowing if someone is available when you need them, being unfamiliar with who they are in respect to the group dynamic, and not knowing if they’re available when you expect them to be, is when queries arise.

Collaboration

In order to be successful in any flexible working endeavour, collaboration has to work in conjunction with communication. Working groups, large and small are essential to avoid siloed thinking and isolating colleagues from each other. In the end, we all need our colleagues to bounce ideas off, to come up with new thoughts and approaches, and whilst much work can be completed individually, sometimes this simply isn’t possible for the results required.

Communication tools, collaboration software, or even getting together off-site in the eponymous coffee shop, is sometimes all that is needed to bring a team together and re-focus their efforts to get a project over the line.

Trust

In the end, all of this comes down to trust. Trusting our colleagues to do what we’re expecting them to do, trusting them to be where they say they’re going to be, and not jumping to the wrong conclusions if something is slightly different to planned. Trust and communication can make a colleague feel valued by their company, and the quality of work will undoubtedly be superior as a result.

Flexible working is truly for everyone, any age, and any experience and it can be much more productive than expecting every single person to conform to one particular time slot and type of working. Hours and location alone don’t make a worker any more or less efficient, but open communication, a space to think and plan and work, can have a huge impact on quality of work. Having the choice to work from somewhere other than the day-to-day office can really be what makes the difference to encourage a good worker, to be an exemplary colleague.

Choice – Balance – Trust

Bringing all of these strands together in conclusion boils down to the three key points of Choice, Balance and Trust. What might be right for one person, isn’t necessarily right for another. Flexible working must be a choice, not a requirement, in the same way as working in an office 100% shouldn’t be a requirement, but also a choice. From time to time, the team must be brought together to build trust and understanding, with the confidence to truly trust each other to get on with what’s necessary to succeed. This is where balance is important, and this is truly the trickiest element. Identifying when bringing the team together is required for a genuine purpose – and not just conforming to ‘it’s a good idea as we haven’t done this in a while’.

A balanced team, being trusted to to get on with what they need to do, supporting each other and their development, no micromanagement, and communicating freely, however they choose to do that, can only be a positive outlook for the future.

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