Louise Egan: Time to remove the stigmas around flexible working

The office-bound 9-5 job is rapidly changing, with many employees looking for greater control over their working lives. Yet, according to a  poll last year by the TUC, one in three requests for flexible working are turned down and 58 per cent of the UK workforce currently has no option for any leeway whatsoever. This is despite the fact that 87 per cent of people want to work flexibly which rises to 92 per cent for Generation Y.

Gov.uk outlines several different ways of working flexibly – it could refer to job sharing, working from home or working outside of core hours, amongst others. Flexible working is particularly prevalent within the creative industries, as many staff do not feel the need to be tethered to the office when it comes to creative or strategic thinking.

Recognising the benefits

Interestingly, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that encouraging flexible working actually cultivates creativity – giving people the freedom to choose where and when they work can liberate them to work in an optimal way. Inspiration often hits outside of office hours – many of us will recall times when we have landed on a brilliant idea in the middle of the night, or while walking to get lunch.  It all comes down to trust – so long as employees are delivering great work, does it really matter when or where they do it?

As well as boosting creativity, flexible working can increase productivity and efficiency. It is easy for meetings to thwart the creative process. According to a survey of 2,000 employees across the UK, France and Germany, the average employee spends a total of 187 hours – or the equivalent of 23 days a year – in meetings. The poll claims 56 per cent of those meetings are generally “unproductive.” In contrast, if staff are based at home, they will want to maximise the time they spend in the office and, as a result, meetings will be more focused and efficient. When the worker is at home, they are usually able to concentrate and create without interruption.

Varying working hours, and working from home either occasionally or regularly, can also have a positive impact on employees’ mental health. For example, not having a long or hectic commute to work during peak times, but rather travelling at quieter times or working from home can make a real difference. Giving staff freedom to vary their hours can help them feel more in control of their time and more valued and trusted by their employer. It can also help reduce stress and burnout, as well as boost job satisfaction.

This is particularly pertinent within the creative industries where the working environment can be extremely high-paced and pressured. Employees may find themselves taking on extra hours to juggle this work alongside fulfilling regular client needs, so offering downtime before or after a pitch can really help employees to focus and ease any associated stress. The work environment itself also has a big role to play in boosting creativity and wellbeing, whether it’s having a more inspiring office space or the opportunity to work in different locations, many employees benefit from a change of scenery.

Ultimately, caring holistically for your people is the right thing to do. However, studies now show that not only does looking after your employees just benefit them, but it also benefits the wider business too. A study by The University of Warwick recently found that there was a 12 per cent productivity spike in employees who were happier at work. Work/life balance is therefore becoming a greater consideration for businesses, not only in terms of generating greater job satisfaction but increasing workplace productivity. For example, by implementing a culture that allows employees to work around a goal or a milestone moment – such as training for a marathon or supporting family – minimises presenteeism and promotes shared understanding in the workplace.

Retention and returner rates

Providing the option to work from home or vary how working hours are divided across the week, for example, can be particularly beneficial to those who are juggling family responsibilities alongside their career. Being open to flexible working solutions should mean working parents are retained and combat the talent shortage we often face due to the exodus of experienced creatives post-parental leave.

This doesn’t only apply to new parents though, there are many people with broader caring responsibilities for a partner or family member that may benefit hugely from flexible working, as might those who have particular interest or passions outside of work that they want to pursue alongside their career. It’s no surprise that businesses are cottoning on to this and developing innovative programmes to encourage returners and flexible working.

In good times and bad

It might not be possible right now for a business to launch a major programme, but it should be manageable for the vast majority of companies to knit more flexibility into their day-to-day culture, except where business reasons are truly prohibitive. Training everyone in diversity and inclusion plus looking for opportunities to talk about the importance of health and wellbeing is essential. Small gestures like giving people time out if they face family or personal emergencies can speak volumes. This might run alongside arrangements for longer term leave like sabbaticals or career breaks to enable an employee to recharge or refocus. Life, like business is often unpredictable, and flexible working policies need to be able to adapt to the good times and the bad.

Truly innovative employers are those that are looking at ways to introduce provisions around some of the more taboo or challenging aspects of life. Where once workplace policies around mental health were rare, now many are developing policies on everything from menopause to miscarriage. These are the things that will increasingly start to make organisations stand out from the crowd as employers of choice.

Flexibility needs to be available for everyone, regardless of family status or life circumstances. The UK workforce is ageing, and people will need to work longer than ever before. If this is to be a reality, we need to promote sustainable working practices and offer greater flexibility than 9-5. Similarly, having an appraisal process that is coaching and strengths-based will communicate to team members that they are valued and that their personal development is taken seriously. Creating a personalised development plan for employees should be a priority for HR and senior leaders. This needs to have alongside it a manager that fully understands what’s needed and how they can best support their team member.