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Sunday, 5 July

The Good, The Bad And The Costly - Flexible Working

It is now one year since, in June 2014, new legislation was passed which gave employees the right to request flexible working and to compel employers to consider, and put into practice, such requests in a reasonable time frame.

Whether you rushed into it as a result of that legislation or whether you were already operating a flexible working system, now is the time to pause and ask yourself if you gave enough thought and planning to its implementation.

As the CEO of a technology company that supplies software for streamlining workspace, I’ve seen clients move towards flexible working in different ways and for different reasons. Some are good, some are bad, and some are far too costly.

This is where facilities managers need to play their part, teaming up with other main groups that include IT, human resources and real estate, all working together to develop a policy that ensures employers and employees alike benefit from the right work-life balance.

The question to ask yourself is this: How successful are your flexible working practices?

Based on what I have witnessed in the past few years, allow me to share with you my views on what differentiates the good, the bad and the costly programmes.


The good

A good flexible working programme has the right underlying reasons for operating, not just as a way of following the crowd, because you have been told that flexible working is the only way forward.

Employers need to ask themselves why they are making the changes, what both employer and employees will gain from them. Will flexible working improve production levels, will it provide better customer care, or will it result in more committed employees?

There needs to be wide and effective engagement with the user community who will need to accept change. Employees must be consulted. Are they worried that working part-time from home will damage their career prospects? As an employer are you worried about lack of control? Clarity of the end game is important, as you consider the outcome for each group of users.

Then there’s use of the right technology. Today’s workspace and scheduling software delivers improved room space utilisation, whilst lowering operating costs and providing the efficient booking processes needed to support flexible working.

The leadership team must embrace and lead relevant change, as everyone works together to sell the benefits and to make sure the feedback loop is open and inclusive.

There needs to be excellent communications on the project with a focus on keeping everyone informed on how change is delivering benefits. And there needs to be an excitement amongst everyone involved. People enjoy being associated with any positive and exciting initiative.

Here’s what Richard Branson, Founder and Chairman of the Virgin Group, says on his blog at “We like to give people the freedom to work where they want, safe in the knowledge that they have the drive and expertise to perform excellently, whether they are at their desk or in their kitchen. Yours truly has never worked out of an office, and never will.”


The bad

To make flexible working operate efficiently, its aims must be clearly articulated and everyone from the top down needs to be involved. If the person at the top merely implements it in an academic manner without any real staff engagement, it is doomed to fail.

Failure is also the result of poor research on the impact and benefits of change on a business, along with poor communication among staff about the initiative. For it to work, the right groups need to be engaged or aligned. Bring in the wrong people or ignore those who have the insight to gauge the feelings of the workforce and once again, you are heading for failure, or at least the chance to seriously improve efficiency.

Maybe you already have technology installed to handle room and workspace scheduling. But is it the right technology for the job in hand? Does it allow staff the opportunity to find flexible space easily, thereby maximizing the utilisation of hot desking? 

Do your staff have tablets or laptops that will allow them to work from anywhere with an Internet connection? Do you know what the actual utilisation of your fixed and flexible workspace is?

Is your leadership fully engaged and excited by the prospect of flexible working, or it is seen as just another project with no real end game?

Answer no to any of those questions and it’s time to think again about your flexible working policy.  Failure to consider all of these factors can lead to the worst kind of flexible working.

Here’s what David Coplin, Chief Envisioning Officer of Microsoft UK has to say: “We need to take a more flexible approach to both the workplace and the work we do; one that provides us both the physical and cognitive space to harness the incredible power, insight and experience we offer, but focused not on the individual processes but instead on the overall outcomes our organisations are seeking to achieve.”


The costly

Flexible working becomes costly when it is installed for the wrong reasons: because it seems to be the thing to do, rather than looking into how it can achieve lower costs or better space utilisation.

People who think this way, tend to go for what they think is the best technology and toolset, forgetting what is truly needed in their company scenario.

Without staff engagement or communications, expenditure is made on the wrong requirements. Items like high-cost desk panels, furniture and lighting are given precedence over the kind practicality that people at the sharp end understand.

Don’t allow a workplace aligned with different staff groups to be sacrificed for expensive designs that present what is ‘perceived’ as the right image, but which does nothing for productivity. With no clear alignment and inevitable internal strife, expected outcomes fail to be delivered, and investment is wasted.

Integration between space use and energy management; expenditure on the physical assets, without the research and background that drives practical change… it all adds up to too much dogma.

If practical and flexible thinking is not actioned correctly, effective change with full employee engagement will not be achieved. Not only will the business be less efficient, a lot of cash which could have been put to more constructive use, will have been wasted.

Flexible working initiatives that cost the earth and do not deliver are generally characterized by wrong technology, lack of integration, expensive and non-functional design, poor staff engagement and communications and inadequate research on the actual utilisation of space before a project commenced.

Here is a practical example of a high cost initiative that did not deliver. At a recent industry event I happened to be sitting next to the Facilities Director of a major retail organisation. To summarise, significant investments were made in technology, design and also the creating of a new flexible workplace. 

Two things had an impact on the use of the new workplace by staff. Firstly, the challenge with the entrenched culture of the business, “if I am not seen in a specific location, I will create the impression of not performing.” And secondly, the business failed to give staff the right tools. The mix of laptops to desktops was not correct to achieve the real transition to a more flexible approach to working.

The above is a sad reflection of reality I call the Costly Initiative that fails to deliver.


Flexible working checklist

Here’s a 12-point checklist to help you get flexible working right in your organisation:

1. Start by identifying what employers and employees expect to get from flexible working.

2. Think about the needs of your specific business.

3. Plan changes well in advance.

4. Make sure employers and employees keep in constant contact to identify what works best for all.

5. Research, research, research to find out what works best for everyone concerned.

6. Don’t be afraid to change your mind if research turns up something that you didn’t foresee, or didn’t initially approve.

7. Set up a task force to implement policies.

8. Distribute a questionnaire about the suitability of flexible working, and listen to what the recipients have to say.

9. Examine how flexible working will impact on areas such as production, staffing, supervisions, contracts, satisfaction and overall efficiency.

10. Check that your flexible working policy is within the law as it was instigated in the legislation of 30th June 2014.

11. Trial changes before implementing them.

12. Keep a watchful eye on progress and continually monitor how the changes are working out.


Now let’s hear from you

The opinions I have expressed on this issue are based on my background in technology, rather than in FM practices. Have I got it right? Are there other issues that need to be addressed?  I’d love to hear from FMs, company directors and others with their own opinions on any of the topics I have raised.


By Luis de Souza,

Chief Executive, NFS Technology Group



You can contact me here.


More information and White papers on the topics discussed are available here.

Article written by Luis De Souza


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