People work better when they are happy, and people are happier if they have the ability and flexibility to combine work and life successfully says Ben Black

Working flexibly – when you want and how you want – has obvious benefits from an employee perspective. Luckily, it’s becoming a bit more obvious for the employers out there as well. In a recent survey conducted by My Family Care and Hydrogen, a whopping 81% of respondents put flexible working first on their career wish list. That’s a big number. So, what do we mean by flexible working and why is it important?

Well, it’s important for three main reasons. Firstly, there’s a gradual realisation in the western world that life is for living. We may not all achieve our career ambitions, but for lots of us the quality of the journey has gradually become more important than the ultimate destination. Commuting isn’t much fun for anyone. The more time you spend with your family and friends, and the less time you spend stuck on an overcrowded train, the better your life is.

Secondly, flexible working really is possible. I mean, it was only 20 years ago that the internet and phones arrived. Nowadays, you can genuinely work whenever and wherever. Organising meetings; ordering supplies; putting presentations together – all things that can be done remotely. This has lead to a huge shift in business culture. People are being judged on outputs and performance rather than things like ‘office time’. Sure, there are plenty of dinosaurs out there – if you’re not in the office you can’t be working right? Working from home must mean that you are slacking off. Does even asking to work flexibly ruin the relationship with your boss? That is wrong on every level and disproved by every meaningful study ever produced which leads me on to the third point.

Some businesses and managers get it. In fact, more and more of the best employers are understanding that the way we live and work is fundamentally changing. Just look at the way Google organises itself; or how a bank like Citi is embracing the future; or how Sky manages its new call centres. All the best employers have a few things in common – they judge people on outcomes and inputs, and they have a very clear set of company values that define what agile working actually means for them.

The flip side is that there are still equal numbers of managers and businesses out there that don’t get it. We all know a pre-historic manager who is convinced that work and family are mutually exclusive. In these days of fluent job markets and online job boards, it’s easy to let your feet do the walking. So in a very convoluted way, the point I’m making is that, eventually, all businesses will come on board with the new and more agile ways of working. If they don’t, then the best talent – creative, secretarial, marketing – will simply up sticks and move to a competitor that judges them more on their skills and productivity than on their office presence and time-keeping.

The survey brought out a few other interesting points. We asked how many people would give up a pay rise for a better quality of life. The answer was: an awful lot (53%). Ask the same question to anyone with a young family or elderly parents to worry about, and it becomes even more pronounced. And unsurprisingly, employers are finally starting to understand the business benefits: treat the workforce well, genuinely care about how they live and work, and give them a bit of cultural empathy and flexibility. If you do this, you’ll have an incredibly loyal, engaged and productive team. People work better when they are happy. And people are happier if they have the ability and flexibility to combine work and life successfully.

I don’t have a crystal ball, but the future does look reasonably certain, even if the timing remains unknown. The consequences will be huge, though, and possibly most marked when it comes to gender diversity. If people really do start being judged on performance rather than all the other factors that determine career and success currently, then you have removed the biggest barrier to gender equality that exists. When we see a greater gender diversity across both executives and their assistants, now that will be something to celebrate.

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Ben Black is Director of My Family Care which provides childcare support to employers and businesses such as P&G, Barclays, KPMG, Deloitte, and IBM. He is also one of the founding members of Tinies which has 20 nurseries/crèches under management and ... (Read More)

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