Why we need a new debate on flexibility

I’ve previously written about how, whatever comes from the pandemic, we will still need to physically come together at work. It is a myth that this is the end of the office and those that follow that line will, in my opinion, soon come to regret it. The other oft heralded statement at the moment is that this is a new dawn for flexibility at work. And whilst I hope it is, it means honestly addressing the inflexible flexibility that has been our model to date.

Our existing model of flexible working is no longer fit for purpose. In many ways, it introduces into work further structured inflexibility that, I’d go as far to say, could be one of the driving factors behind poor productivity. In embracing this, “new dawn” we need to be honest and open in the discussion and lose the emotion that is often raised in critiquing these existing structures.

I wouldn’t mind betting that in most organisations, if you ran the analysis of part time workers, the majority would not be at work on a Friday. As a long time commuter, I’d also add that the volume of (pre-pandemic) workers that “worked from home” also increased on a Friday. Not only is this statistically improbably, it is also unproductive, economically damaging and socially and organisationally inequitable. It isn’t flexibility in any true shape or form.

There is a decent argument to be had for a four day working week. That’s a good way of structuring and organising flexibility within both organisations and nations, but it is planned, thought through and evenly applied to all. But the reality is that the more likely model, at least in the UK, is going to be driven by reduced capacity in buildings through social distancing as well as the social appetite to maintain some of the practices that have been learnt over the last four months.

If we are truly to have a brave conversation about flexibility at work, that probably means throwing out the existing legislation that has led to our weirdly inflexible current situation. It means looking at the working week being seven days rather than five for more than just frontline and operational workers, it means looking at annualised hours, minimum hours contracts, it means dusting off the actually quite brilliant (but much maligned) Taylor report and starting to have a more progressive conversation about solutions that work for both organisations and individuals.

By definition, the presenteeism culture that has pervaded in many workplaces will be rightly challenged, but in using the workspaces for the work that really needs us to come together, so will the inflexible contractual arrangements that so many organisations have introduced in order to try and do the right thing by their workforces. We need to lose our previous grounding in legislative rights and protection and imagine a new world, with new normals and new possibilities.

Simply put, our model of flexible working is neither flexible, nor is it working. It is time for something much, much better.

Will we remember to care?

Last week I was having a conversation with a member of my team. Reminiscing that when I started in HR as a Personnel Officer I used to know all the colleagues absent with long term sickness, what they were off with and when they were having any treatments. I’d diarise (paper version) to speak with them on a regular basis just to check in. I wouldn’t pass the test as strategic HR these days, but there was something utterly right about it nonetheless.

As we start to emerge from the current situation, we can reflect on what we’ve learnt in organisations about colleague’s lives, things that we probably didn’t know about and had left to line managers. My team have personally contacted by phone over 900 colleagues who registered that they either have, or live with someone with, a vulnerability – to agree a personal care plan. The process has been both humbling and reassuring. It goes without saying that has received universal gratitude from the colleagues receiving the call, but it has also been a moment of pride for the HR colleagues involved.

It might just be a “big organisation” thing, prone to the application of some sort of bastardisation of the much loathed Ulrich model (yes Dave, I know you were misunderstood), where employee wellbeing is pushed to line managers and shared service centres. But I do wonder whether we can learn something from this about what employees really want from their HR departments and teams?

My guess is that it isn’t another change or development to the appraisal process, a new recruitment methodology or a self service portal. More likely a group of people who know them, understand their needs and can support them through work, whatever challenge they’re facing. Let’s not forget the the very origins of HR we practice lies in workplace welfare teams.

Sexy? Maybe not. Strategic? Probably more so than many activities that we do. Feeling safe, cared for and known is more likely to drive productivity than the new expensive leadership course you’ve been busy designing. It doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t do all these other things too. But let us not forget what is at the very core of our being and hope that this current situation brings it back to the fore.

When leadership calls

Throughout our careers, there will occasions when we are asked, more than ever, to demonstrate our worth as leaders. Whether through a change, a significant challenge, or indeed a crisis. Any of us that manage people will be asked to step up, to step into the light and to do the thing that we talk and theorise about so often. To lead.

In these circumstances, great leaders put their own concerns aside. They may be worried, concerned or unhappy, but they understand that their role requires them to put this aside. They are there in the service of their people.

They understand that they need to be calm and reassure, that it is only normal that in uncertain times people worry and they look to those in positions of authority to tell them it will be ok. They don’t rush around creating drama, no matter what they may feel inside.

Great leaders understand the importance of simple, clear communications and the need to repeat it more than ever. When we are worried, stressed or concerned we can find it hard to take in multiple complex measures, simple and clear messages make it easier for us to digest and process.

They also know that it is important to play by the rules that they set. That it doesn’t matter how clear and simple the messages are, by contradicting them with behaviours we send out complex messages that confuse. Actions need to match and reinforce messages.

And they recognise the human at the heart of each decision, seeing the impact that each and every choice we make has on people, thinking about how it feels for them and being clear of the why as well as the what. Which means sometimes we can do the right thing and be unpopular.

Finally, great leaders know sometimes they get things wrong in the heat of battle and they are humble and recognise fault. People will forgive you for getting things wrong, they rarely do for denying it or apportioning blame.

When leadership calls, we need to show up as the best version of ourselves. Remain mindful of how we are feeling, what we are thinking and ultimately why we are there. Every day is a chance to practice, sometimes you’re called on to perform.

Hold your nerve

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve arrived at an event, a dinner or a networking session and walking into the room it appears that everyone knows everyone else. And of course, I know no-one. My mind searches to try and understand which magic black book I don’t have access to, which club I’m not part of. And how on earth I’m going to cope with the next period of time amongst strangers.

A similar experience struck me recently when I joined a new fitness class. Everybody looked so adept, so well drilled and rehearsed and there was me flailing around like Bambi on ice. The dread of attending staying for the first four or five sessions, feeling that I would be the incompetent in the room compared to the others who clearly must practice every waking hour to be able to do so well.

And of course, joining a new organisation. The way in which people speak, the knowledge they have about how things are, how they were and how they need to be. Their confidence and understanding, the well rehearsed patterns and protocols and their seemingly effortless delivery. As a new starter, you just bounce around the edges feeling incompetent and out of your depth.

With the passing of time we realise that people are just making small talk at the event, there are others stood on their own, those that know one another are welcoming and inclusive, you can interact as much as you like.  At the gym, the routines are known, but the execution is patchy, the guy catching his breath, or missing out a couple of reps because of fatigue. The new colleagues at work have a pattern, but they still have problems they can’t solve, they have a shared history which includes their collective mistakes.

As our brains seek to make sense of situations, they draw patterns, make assumptions and are drawn initially to simplicity. Our fears and concerns express themselves in worries of inadequacy that we need to control and contain. Time gives us data and data provides contradictions. There is no perfect system, or perfect individual, there are flaws and imperfections everywhere if we choose to observe.

At the end of the day, we’ve just spent longer with ourselves and observing our own, no wonder we notice them first.