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Boosting Productivity Through Agile Working

09/07/2015 16:16 BST | Updated 08/07/2016 10:59 BST

The Chancellor is expected to announce the government's plan to boost productivity on Friday. The news comes just after the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development published a report on productivity which showed that "agile" working was a major part of the productivity puzzle.

Agile working goes further than flexible working - involving a change of work culture to make it truly flexible. So far the government has promoted flexible working through the extension of flexible working legislation to all employees and internally through the adoption of agile working practices in the civil service.

Indeed it's just over a year since new legislation came in which entitles all employees to request flexible working. The aim was to level the playing field so employees did not feel parents and carers were getting special treatment and to create a more flexible working culture.

But has it? There is anecdotal evidence that most employers have been able to cope with the change. Many of the most progressive employers already offered flexible working to all employees in any event. However, some employers say they have been more cautious about granting flexible working for fear of setting a precedent which they will not be able to manage. Managers say they find it hard to manage multiple requests. Nevertheless, survey after survey shows they see the benefits, which include a more motivated, more efficient workforce and greater staff retention, particularly of women. That's not surprising when there is widespread evidence that employees rate flexible working in the top five benefits they are looking for in a new employer.

There are challenges, though, and those challenges can vary according to which sector an employer is in and what the expectations and culture of that sector are. For instance, a consultancy may face demands from clients for a single contact point available on a full-time basis which might make part-time working difficult. Moreover, certain types of flexibility are difficult in certain industries, for instance, homeworking is clearly impossible if you work in a shop. That doesn't, of course, mean that there is no room for flexibility. It just requires particular solutions for particular types of work and a more creative approach.

Inflexible flexibility

Many employers, however, don't get the full benefits of flexible working because they only respond to requests on an ad hoc basis. They may then find themselves in difficulty if, for instance, everyone applies to work from home on a Friday. If they step back and look at how they can change their work culture with a view to the future they tend to have more success.

Andy Lake, editor of Flexibility.co.uk who has been working for years on changing work culture, calls the ad hoc approach to flexible working "inflexible flexibility" and speaks about the need to put in the work to establish a flexible culture rather than just dealing with cases on an 'as they come basis'.

One employer who has been recognised for its work on flexible working is Cafcass, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. Its approach benefits not only its employees, but also service users as well as saving money so frontline services have so far been protected from funding cuts. By harnessing the power of technology and culture change, it has increased its efficiency, boosted satisfaction rates for its service users and 1,800 staff and been able to innovate, moving from being branded 'inadequate' by Ofsted to being praised for its approach to health, well being and flexible working. All social workers have laptops and tablets with 4G and Blackberries so they can work remotely and managers use conference calls to reduce their reliance on travel and face to face meetings. Moreover, the young people they work with identify with tablets and laptops more and they break down potential barriers between them and social workers in ways that using traditional pen and paper doesn't. They can write down their views and engage better through interactive programmes on the tablets so social workers have a more direct link to what they feel and think.

Cafcass are one of a number of employers who have taken a step back - in Cafcass' case because of complaints about their service - to rethink the way their whole organisation functions and to adapt it to the rapidly changing workplace around them. However, it is interesting that there is still one area where there has not been much progress - recruitment. Many flexible employers do not openly advertise that a new job can be worked flexibly, relying on potential recruits to chance bringing up the issue at interview or do their research beforehand.

It can be difficult to know when to turn the conversation to flexible working, particularly if you know competition for a post is fierce.

Flexible recruitment

Some employers have addressed such concerns by being very clear about their flexible culture from the offset. HR firm Reality HR, for example, adopts a dual-pronged approach to flexible recruitment. Not only does everyone at the firm work flexibly, many doing different work patterns and all logged on a shared schedule so cover is always provided, but it also promotes flexible working externally to its clients, educating them about the benefits in attracting a more diverse talent pool.

Consultancy firm AT Kearney has won awards for its Success with Flex initiative which allows for flexible working and alternative career patterns, for instance, consultants can move to non-consultant roles or work on internal projects for a period. The firm is open from the start of the recruitment process that it has a flexible working programme and that everyone can apply. This is mentioned on its website, in its recruitment presentations and in campus recruitment sessions.

Both these employers have changed their work culture to accommodate more flexible ways of working and see a strong business case for doing so in terms of a diverse candidate pool, employee commitment and retention as well as productivity.

For flexible working to progress further it is vital that such employers speak out about the ins and outs of how they have made it work for them and what the benefits have been. Karen Ovenden, director of IT firm Hireserve, says: "Flexible working should be part of the very soul of a company."

The company's flexible approach begins with recruitment. At interviews, Karen addresses flexible working directly. She admits that having a flexible culture is not without challenge. It involves a different style of management, based on more strategic big picture planning around staffing and skills. "I am always thinking about what the business requirements are and might be," says Karen. "For instance, if we hire a part-time person would they be able to increase their hours if their role grows. We sit down and think about what we are looking for in the long term." All this is done through open consultation with staff and a discussion about what works best in terms of adding value to the business and getting the right people for the job.

"A company can only be successful if it has people at the core," says Karen.