Last month marked the one year anniversary of flexible working: a development that was heralded as a major step forward for the UK in embracing a modern means of working. Sadly from the results of the Timewise Flexible Working Index which was launched just a few weeks before, it is clear that flexible working is still a taboo subject for many. This index was the first to analyse whether flexibility is an option at the point of recruitment. There are many interesting facts that come out of the research, but overall it states that 52% of people seeking a flexible job feel nervous to ask for flexibility if the advertisement does not specifically mention it, and that only 6.2% of all jobs advertise with flexible options.
And it is not just at the recruitment stage. According to recent YouGov research, 42% of employees said they would be uncomfortable asking their bosses to let them work flexibly and, as the Financial Times reported in February, take-up of flexible working has been slow.
So despite huge advances in the field of flexible working over the past few years, why is flexible working still viewed with suspicion?
I understand where the logic of the taboo comes from. Why wouldn't you want to work full time if you could? If you request to work part time, is it because you have other interests or commitments which mean you are not fully focused on your job? How did we get to the point that unless we give our lives to our work we are not committed? Working on two clients as the same time does not mean you are less committed to either so why can't you be committed to more than one interest?
The reality is we are in a new world order. The future of work is changing as most corporate entities work on a 24/7 global operation. We have longer working days, and lengthier commutes. Furthermore, and according to the TimeWise report nearly 50% of people want flexible working. Given the average time spent at a single company is only around 4-5 years and as our working landscape continues to change, we should look to embrace new ways of working and flexible working must be one of them.
I co-founded a law firm working with FSTE 250 companies and C-Suite executives. Our operation is fully based on flexible working, not necessarily because of work/life balance issues (which of course it helps), but because it makes us more agile, effective and efficient. Our team are at the top of their game and work on major transactions. We are growing, but stronger evidence of the fact that the flexible business model works is that this entire space of flexible resourcing is growing rapidly within the legal sector. If flexible working models can operate and grow within one of the most traditional professions in the world surely it can work in most industries?
The initial set up was not easy. The idea of a law firm based on flexible working was not an easy sell!. Some thought that the flexible working would be for "mums who wanted to fit in a couple of hours of work around the kids' pick up". You have to remember that the legal profession is male dominated, exceptionally traditional and it generally sees one day off or a day working from home as "the easy way out."
Essentially we had to 're-brand' what flexible working meant for our team and industry. In doing so we had to turn on its head the way we measured our team - rather than looking at hours on the clock (the billable hour being as old as the hills in the legal profession) we simply evaluate outputs. We were fortunate because a number of forward thinking General Counsels saw the benefit of the flexible resource at the senior end of the market and they gave us the opportunity to work with them. What they realised is that flexible working is not the easy way out. It takes a great deal of resourcing to make sure that the team can move from project to project but it takes a certain skill set from the team to be able to pick up projects on short notice and to be able to hit the ground running. In addition, it takes a large amount of management time to make sure the team have been effectively allocated on a project so that they can hit their clients' demands; flexible working takes management, but a large part of that is just logistics. It is now acknowledged that agile working or flexible working makes economic sense, leads to cost effectiveness to the end client and often a more engaged and motivated workforce.
Flexible working may not yet be fully accepted, but reports like the Flexible Working Index and the fact we are discussing it at all mean we are going some way to breaking this taboo.
I think flexible working is the new way forward and for us and our market, it is the only way forward. Now is the time for employers to be brave, to seize the opportunity and embrace the future model of working. Flexible working is not just about a better work/life balance, but about making us all - employees and businesses alike - more effective.