How to set a successful flexible work policy
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Flexible work is one of the most requested perks for employees. But for employers, how do you balance the needs of the worker, with the needs of the business?
Work flexibility is certainly here to stay. It is second only to soft skills like collaboration and leadership in the transformative trends changing the workplace, according to the latest Global Talent Trends report from LinkedIn.
And Australia is at the forefront of countries leading the charge, with a whopping 84 per cent of HR professionals here declaring workforce flexibility is very important.
Not surprisingly, work-life balance is the key benefit of flexible working, but attraction and retention are the next biggest factors, with 54 per cent of global HR managers saying it helps with recruiting and 51 per cent saying it improves retention.
Productivity is a bit more complex, however. Only 42 per cent of HR managers surveyed said that productivity improved as a result.
It’s a conundrum that Michael Gottlieb, CEO of business insurance-comparison site BizCover has experienced first-hand. Gottlieb was one of 20 participants in the 2019 Businesses of Tomorrow study tour to San Francisco, where an in-depth session with LinkedIn executives, and a presentation on the Global Talent Trends, still left him with questions.
“We've had some fabulous successes around flexible working, but we've had some more difficult situations that haven't worked as well,” Gottlieb said after the visit. “We've found it more difficult where people have less discipline and aren't able to structure their day without assistance. Also, in areas where you need more team collaboration around solving problems. And flexibility also needs to be seen from both the employer and the employee side; that reciprocity is very important.”
Other Businesses of Tomorrow were quick to offer Gottlieb advice, with Evan Wong of regulation technology company Checkbox, and Adam Jacobs of young talent marketplace, Hatch, sharing their best practices.
Jacobs is a co-founder of one of Australia’s most successful online retailers, The Iconic, and in building his new company realised there needed to be a circuit breaker to take employees out of the constant grind of daily tasks and into deep work and creative thinking.
“We do ‘work from home Wednesdays’ where everybody in the company works from home that day,” Jacobs says. “We wanted to create a space in the middle of the week for people to not have meetings, not be interrupted, to work from wherever they want, and just go deep on the problems that they need to solve.”
“We find it's awesome for energy management. It allows a break in the middle of the week for people to have to themselves. And then they come back recharged for the second half of the week.”
Accountability is critical to making flexible work, work, say both Wong and Jacobs.
“It’s important that everyone – yourself included – understands what are the outcomes that you have to achieve in the time period, whether it is weekly, monthly or quarterly,” Wong says.
Checkbox uses tools from the agile methodology framework, and a process called Objectives and Key Results (OKR) that rely on weekly routine meetings to track progress. It means every employee has to account to their peers for what they have achieved.
“But it's not just about reporting because otherwise it would feel quite intimidating for employees – a bit of a Big Brother surveillance happening,” Wong says.
Instead Checkbox celebrates the wins.
“On Monday we have a kick-off meeting where everyone in the company commits to one priority that's not just something on your ‘To Do’ list for the week. This is the thing that you need to get done this week to advance the objective we're striving for this quarter,” Wong says.
“On the Friday we do a wins meeting where the whole company sits down and we go through each of those committed items and tick it off and we have a company gong that we hit and we all celebrate and clap for each achievement.”
Hatch has a similar process to ensure staff make the most of the benefits of flexibility.
They use a process called team retros, where every two weeks they sit down to review how the team dynamics are working, whether they are working effectively, and they identify one thing that needs to be improved in the following two weeks.
“We use a design thinking process where we give everyone a stack of post-it notes and they throw things they like up on a wall, as well as things they don't like and things that might be an emerging opportunity or risk and how it pertains to the team.
“Each time we run a retro we come up with only one action. There might be a bunch of things we want to change but we say we're only going to change one thing in the next two weeks. Then let's review after two weeks and say ‘did we actually change that and how did it go?’. And then let's move on to the next thing,” Jacobs says.
Flexible working is not for everyone, or every role, however, say Wong and Jacobs.
Jobs that require high contact hours, like client interaction, or team collaboration, don’t lend themselves to flexible hours as well, as say, a developer who is working in a narrow path, according to Wong. Jacobs says that it works really well for employees in creative roles, who “need to go really deep down these rabbit holes of exploration” to solve a complex problem.
“In my experience there are three rules for making it work,” Jacobs says.
“The first one is [flexibility] means something different for every organisation, every team, so have a conversation about how people want to work flexibly and what it means in that environment.”
“Number two, set really clear expectations of what the boundaries are. If you don't put any boundaries down then people don't know what to expect of each other. That's super important.”
“And then number three, don't feel ashamed to call out that flexibility is not working for you or those boundaries aren't working for you.”
Flexible working is a popular perk your business could offer at no cost. But it doesn’t work for every employee, or every job or work situation – so if you offer it up, make sure you retain the flexibility to withdraw the arrangement if necessary.
This article is a general overview and should be used as a guide only. We recommend that you seek independent professional advice about your specific circumstances before acting.