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Breaking the stigma of flexible working

At some point in the (distant) future I want to reconfigure my working life. Ideally, I will find a balance between working in a (non-)executive role, having time to work with social enterprises and having more personal time. This will involve having a different relationship with my employer: it involves flexible working.

Now, it’s important here not to jump to conclusions and I don’t want my current employer (Thomson Reuters) to be unnecessarily concerned…

Flexible working is a way of working that suits an employee’s needs. It could mean having flexible start and finish times, splitting shifts and/or job sharing, or working from home a few days each week. For me personally, it means working part time in a role to accommodate other interests and ambitions.

Contrary to popular assumptions - it’s not just an issue that impacts mothers and/or carers, and it is not solely a gender issue. Flexible working is an issue that impacts all of us: people who want a better work-life balance, people with children, people caring for elderly parents, people with disabilities and people that want to divide their time over different career paths - all have very similar needs with respect to flexible working.

It also has noticeable financial and social implications for business, particularly in being able to attract and retain top talent from a larger pool:

  • Results from 8,000 global employers and employees survey conducted by Vodafone in 2016 (one of the largest of its kind) found that 83 per cent of respondents said adopting flexible working had resulted in improvements in productivity and 61 per cent said it had helped increase company profits.
  • A 2016 Lancaster University’s Work Foundation report entitled “Working Anywhere” found that flexible working will be the main way of working for 70 per cent of organisations by 2020, according to a survey of 500 managerial level employees within medium to large businesses.
  • A recent survey on work-life balance by the Department for Work and Pensions found that 41% of employees had taken flexible work arrangements into account when deciding to work for their current employer.

Contrary to popular assumptions - it’s not just an issue that impacts mothers and/or carers, and it is not solely a gender issue

Although these statistics paint a very clear picture, flexible working in practice is still highly stigmatised - especially in the legal and financial industries. This was especially clear when I hosted a roundtable in London to discuss the issues that individuals faced when it came to flexible working.

What was particularly interesting was the fact that every discussion came back to these three themes:

  1. Policy
  2. Empowerment
  3. Culture

Having the right policies in place is paramount to enabling flexible working practices that don’t take advantage of either the employee and/or the employer. Like any sort of workflow, flexible working should be under contract with clear boundaries and open communication channels between a manager and their employee. Even in certain roles that have taxingly high demands, such as sales, discussions from the roundtable revealed similar results - and in a few cases actually higher targets - were achieved for the larger team when an employee and their manager agreed on a personalised flexible working contract that catered to the individual’s lifestyle, but didn’t abuse the system. Communication is paramount here, as is setting ground rules and sticking to them.

A common misconception of productivity is that if an individual is not sitting at their desk it means they aren’t serious about their work

At the end of the day, there is no denying that certain roles require greater responsibility and time commitment - the business needs to meet certain targets, and they require resource. However, there is a discussion to be had about whether certain roles can be done part time, and if there is a more creative way to work if they can’t be. The importance here is ensuring that employees feel empowered to have these conversations with their managers without fear of their motivations being questioned. When talking about flexible working and people’s perceptions I’ve heard the phrases “lack of ambition,” “underachieving,” and “not a team player,” thrown around - as if flexible working would prevent an individual from growing in their career and/or being considered for a job they were more than capable of doing. However, in practice there is ample evidence that this is simply not the case: empowered individuals are more productive.

This idea of empowering individuals to bring their best selves to work is also a culture issue - one that comes down to trust and leading by example. A common misconception of productivity is that if an individual is not sitting at their desk it means they aren’t serious about their work. We live in the 21st century whereby we are more connected and easily accessible than ever before, so how can this be logical? Productivity should be based on output, not on physical visibility. Being judged otherwise is not conducive to results; it impedes them - and morale. Moving forward, businesses will need highly productive workforces to remain competitive, and employees - not just women, but millennials, older workers and men too - will want to work in more flexible ways to support how they want to live their lives.

At Thomson Reuters we have a saying: “always assume positive intent.” Approaching flexible working should be no different. I am acutely aware that like most things, the tone needs to come from the top and be demonstrated by the top to be believable. It is one of the primary reasons I felt the need to start this conversation - and also the reason I wanted to share the way I see flexible working playing a part in my own life.

The business case is clear, so let’s talk through it.

Jan-Coos Geesink has worked in financial services, legal and other industries including information technology and medical and security services for over 30 years. He is currently managing director, global head of sales & marketing, Thomson Reuters’ Financial & Risk division. He is the executive sponsor of Thomson Reuters Pride at Work in the UK and a member of the Thomson Reuters Black Employee Network Taskforce. ■