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Flexible working

I just listened to the Eat Sleep Work Repeat podcast episode on flexible work, and have some thoughts on flexibility. But first a quick definition: flexible working means working in different places in different ways with different people at different times.

The issue I have with the current thinking, and most discussions about flexible working, is that they are predicated on the concept of measuring people by the hours they work.

This makes flexibility all about changing the way someone works the hours they are contracted to, and demotes flexibility to a HR benefit used to secure commitment from people with needs outside of work.

I completely believe in organisations showing empathy towards their people, and flexible working is a means of doing that whilst also improving trust and increasing productivity, but there is a greater business benefit from flexibility.

Flexible working takes people out of the office and breaks down the boundaries between the company and society. Over the past few decades we’ve seen the boundaries become more permeable, and flexibility is part of that trend.

More permeable boundaries mean that more ideas come into the business, which through effective knowledge and intellectual property management become a competitive advantage for a business.

This could be achieved by working at a supplier’s or customer’s office, university library, or anywhere in society that touches something a business is connected with in order to generate new ideas and connections.

To realise these benefits a few things need to happen; we need to change the narrative from flexibility equals working from home, & the implication it’s a bit of a skive. The podcast mentions associating status with flexibility, which seems like an interesting motivator. And we need to stop measuring people by the hours they work and measure them by the outcomes they achieve. Measuring by hours made sense when every hour spent produced the same output but it doesn’t when some hours are more productive than others.

The podcast also mentions that most people actually only work 3 hours a day, which means the rest of the day in the office is a waste of everyone’s time, and so measuring by hours incentivises unproductive work.

Flexibility can improve working conditions, and absolutely should, but it should also be seen as a way to achieve an essential competitive advantage for organisations in the twenty first century.