It’s easy to miss significant social changes when you are slap bang in the middle of them, particularly if they were well under way before you encountered them. The way that working practices have changed is a good example. When I started work (I’m embarrassed to say how long ago it was, but the electric calculator was a novelty!), everyone arrived in the office for a nine o-clock start and left on the dot of 5:30. We even had a tea break (and yes, there was a lady with a trolley).
Our latest research (Flexible working: Goodbye nine to five) shows just how out of date that model is, with 94% of employers offering flexible working, in one form or another. Sometimes it’s part of a formal contract (especially part time working and job share) but it’s just as likely to be an informal arrangement (working from home sometimes, or adjusting start and finish times). What’s more, flexible working isn’t something that is primarily used by women to juggle work and care responsibilities; men are just as likely to use some form of flexible working (except job share). In fact, the most dramatic change in male working patterns is the growth of part time working, and not just because of the recession – it’s been on an upwards trend for the last 20 years.
So what’s driving this change? It’s a combination of personal and work-related reasons. People sometimes have to go home early to collect a sick child from school, and make up the time later, but they may also have a critical report to write and stay home to get it done in peace and quiet. Except, of course, they are logged into the corporate system, so they also get their emails dropping in to their inbox to distract them, just as if they were in the office. And the more senior they are, the more likely it is that they will adopt informal flexible working patterns.
Managing people who work flexibly can be challenging, as it’s so much harder to supervise people you may not always see. Managers who agree flexible working make judgements based on the employee’s ability to manage their own workload, their trustworthiness and their level of commitment. The challenge for managers in performance managing flexible workers is to agree what they are setting out to achieve (their outputs) rather than their working behaviour (their inputs), coupled with good communication skills on both sides. One downside is the effect that having some people working flexibly can have on the dynamics of the team, so managers need to work hard at making sure the team can overcome any problems that may arise.
Here at ILM this research has made us realise just how commonplace flexible working is – it’s easier to count the people who don’t do it from time to time, than it is to count those who do. That’s why flexible working is the new normal.