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From perk to policy: The rise of flexible working

Written 18 February, 2019, 4 minutes to read

It’s official: the 9-5 office is on its way out. It wasn’t too long ago that asking for flexible hours at many workplaces meant being laughed out the office, but things are different these days. Flexible working is no longer viewed as the ultimate employee perk; it’s become a default policy in countless offices around the world.

But the change means more than just being able to pick and choose your hours. The rise of flexible working represents a huge shift in the employee-employer relationship, and its logic is now set to change other areas of corporate organization. So how did this shift come about? And why are more companies jumping on the flexible working bandwagon?

Shaking the stigma of flexible working

Flexible working can vary from reduced hours and non-rigid office times to working 100% remotely. Ultimately, being able to work flexibly gives people more control over both their work and personal lives, and the benefits of flexible working are well documented.

For a long time there was an assumption that working from home meant lazing around in your PJs all day, maybe replying to a few emails – at best. The term “flexism” was even coined to describe the prejudice people face when they ask for more flexibility. We know flexible working positively impacts performance and wellbeing, supports employee mental health and promotes gender equality, but it’s taken a long time for the stigma to abate.

Nowadays, studies suggest that flexible working is more important to most employees than a pay rise. Smarter companies have already realized that if they don’t offer flexible working, not only are they creating an unequal working environment that favors men, they’re also excluding many of the best candidates. Growing up in a borderless world means that millennials don’t just want flexible hours – they expect them.

The Deloitte 2017 Millennial Survey found that 84% of millennials work flexibly “to some degree”, whether that was flexible start/finish times, flexible roles or flexible locations. Flexible working is a must for most millennials, and the demand won’t just die with them. A huge amount of office work can easily be transposed to a home office setting, and young people are losing patience for illogically rigid, old-fashioned policies.

From policy to company mentality

But despite statistics supporting the benefits of flexible hours, many employers have remained reluctant to embrace this new way of working. It isn’t necessarily as simple as just relaxing your office hours or telling people they can now work from home; flexible working policies also demand a change to the ways a company thinks and works.

Properly applying a flexible working policy means contesting old conventions about the ways things are done – and how employees are best utilized. Quickly drawing up a relaxed new policy won’t cut it; a successful culture of flexibility isn’t about rules and strategies, it’s about understanding that every employee is an individual. It’s a mentality, one that promotes the idea that every person deserves the same concern as the next – even though their reasons for wanting flexibility may vary enormously.

Flexible working has long been associated with working mothers and caregivers, but it’s this tired stereotype that needed to be retired. Embracing flexibility means changing our ideas about flexible working and how it apply to our lives, career and wellbeing.

The issue reached a new peak in 2018, with several large-scale flexible working campaigns. Both the Diversity Council of Australia and the FlexAgility Group launched big initiatives that aimed to move flexible work into the mainstream. By ensuring managers collaborate with employees to develop flexible solutions, these campaigns believe more organizations will feel positive about being more flexible.

Learning to trust

Trust plays a key role in a successful flexible policy, but it’s important to consider that in spite of what many employers still insist, trust doesn’t have to be earned. It’s common for flexible hours to be offered as an incentive, only when an employee has been with the company for a while. But if you trust a person enough to hire them and have them join your team, why shouldn’t that trust extend to their hours?

If any employers are still doubtful, the aforementioned Deloitte Millennial Report also found that companies who have utilized flexible working admit their previous misgivings about staff slacking off are baseless; further, 78% of employees claimed they feel trusted by their employer. The survey stated that millennials ultimately crave “freelance flexibility with full-time stability”. It isn’t really about having work-life separation and balance, then – it’s more about assimilation.

In a relatively short space of time, flexible working has gone from rare employee perk to a default policy in multiple companies. It’s true that many organizations have yet to embrace this way of working, but that will change. Flexible working isn’t only the future – something necessary to attract young people – but also something that helps us develop broad, diverse workplaces. And that’s something we can all benefit from.

Think flexible working is just for employees? See how it also benefits companies.

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