Employers Guide to Flexible Working. Part 5: Barriers to flexible working and how to overcome them

So far in our employers guide to flexible working we’ve set out all you need to know to confidently introduce flexible working to your organisation.

There’s one important part missing. We’ve set out all the positives – and there are many – but what we haven’t yet discussed is where the potential barriers to fully embracing flexible working can be. You can bet on the fact that there will be some.

Any organisational change comes with challenges, resistance and potential roadblocks. We know from experience and from research that there are issues common to many organisations that present themselves as challenges when introducing flexible working.

Anticipate barriers

If you don’t try and anticipate what the barriers are, what challenges you may face, or what the objections your board, team or employees may raise then you won’t be prepared to address them, neutralise them and get on with the job in hand. Time and energy will be wasted. At worst the whole project could be derailed – and we don’t want that!

So in this post we’re going to tell you about the barriers organisations who have gone through this change have faced. What the common objections, grounds for resistance and roadblocks can be when introducing a flexible working policy, and how with a bit of planning you can address and even avoid them altogether.

Why is there resistance to flexible working?

Although 94 per cent of UK organisations now offer employees some kind of flexible working, culturally we are still in a transitionary period[i]. We are halfway along the road between the rigid controls of a nine-to-five working life and a the reality of truly agile workforce.

It’s not surprising that there will be some resistance to this fundamental change in how we structure our lives. We have been institutionalised by our education and our early working lives – the nine-to-five mentality is entrenched. You can’t expect all your staff and managers to shift their mindset and working practices overnight, some of them may need a bit of convincing.

So what are the main objections?

“It will cause resentment.” Before last year flexible working was only legally the right of those with caring responsibilities, and for some this created a ‘them and us’ attitude. Those who worked flexibly were often regarded as those that weren’t taking their career seriously. Times have now changed and the law has too. All employees now have the right to request flexible working, and often it’s the most senior team members who are working flexibly.

However old attitudes linger. Almost half of the 1000 managers surveyed by the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) in 2012 said that allowing some people to work flexibly causes resentment within teams. 15 percent said they personally had felt resentment towards colleagues who worked flexibly.

“It will lead to problems dealing with clients.” If staff are working reduced or staggered hours, and from remote locations managers may fear that customer service will suffer. 41% of those surveyed by the ILM feared this would be the case.

“Work will be unfairly distributed.” 38 per cent of the managers surveyed by ILM held this view. However while some people still think that working flexibly or part-time means part-committed, the truth is that many people who work flexibly don’t work reduced hours at all and often those who work part-time are far more productive.

“I can’t manage my team properly if they aren’t in the office.” Even though technology makes it perfectly possible and reasonable for staff to work remotely, and still be in touch and accountable to their manager, for some the traditional stance of visibility equals productivity is still the norm.

Overcoming the barriers

The way in which a flexible working policy is implemented and communicated has a huge effect on how successful it is. The ‘them and us’ attitude we mentioned earlier is often the result of poor change management. Only 57 per cent of the managers surveyed by ILM said their organisation’s policy was clearly communicated and 33% said it wasn’t fully embraced.

So what practical steps can be taken?

Communicate, communicate, communicate

We can’t repeat this enough! Open and honest communication is key to any organisational change. Most of the issues raised above can be addressed through improving communication with both staff and managers.

  • Senior management buy-in is crucial. They need to drive the discussion about the benefits of flexible working and make clear the business objectives for introducing it.
  • Rather than having flexible working seem like a benefit given to an individual or group of staff, it needs to be communicated as an asset that is going to support the whole organisation.
  • Don’t let flexibility happen informally. Be open. Have a clear policy that sets flexible working out as a contractual arrangement, with guiding principles about how managers address requests for these contractual changes.
  • Not only do your leadership team need to talk the talk, they also need to walk it. CEOs and senior managers are those mostly likely to be working flexibly on an unofficial basis. Make it official. Instead of hiding the fact he is working from home or working irregular hours, have your CEO broadcast the fact. This will help make flexible the new normal.

Prepare line managers

As we’ve demonstrated it can be line managers who find the shift most difficult. Much of the success of flexible working rests with managers being able to move to assessing performance on output, rather than on time spent on a project.

  • Help them develop their skills in goal-setting, planning and project management.
  • Develop their communication skills so that they know how to give clear instructions to their team using the communication tools available.
  • Help them understand the importance of trusting their team to get on with the job.

Plantronics, a communication technology firm was awarded a Work Wise Mark of Excellence Award for its smarter working policy in 2010. They overcame line manager resistance by using interactive online training that taught both managers and staff the important skills needed to manage and be effective working within remote teams.

A trial run

Companies that run a flexible working pilot accompanied by the training tend to be most successful. The ILM survey found that it was those managing staff for the first time and those with no experience of flexible working themselves that were most resistance to these new working practices. On the other hand the majority of those with experience of flexible working feel it has benefited both the business and employees.

So if there are areas of your business where flexible working seems to be most resisted, or particularly challenging why not ask them to try it out for a limited period to see if it works for them? Ensure the trial last long enough to establish itself and to see if it has an impact on key measures like productivity and staff turnover. 

Truly embrace flexibility

So now you’ve learnt the challenges that may present themselves when introducing a flexible working policy you can plan for, and hopefully address them before they arise.

Organisations that trial flexible working in a controlled way, prepare staff, communicate their policies clearly, and openly and honestly discuss these opportunities are less likely to encounter negative attitudes along the way.

As we’ve pointed out earlier in the series research shows that flexibility not only increases productivity but also boosts wellbeing. We promise that if you plan for – and take action – on the points above then you can soon be working in an organisation that truly embraces flexible working.

[i] Flexible Working: Goodbye to Nine to Five, Institute of Leadership & Management 2012

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