Agile working requires culture change

To see the chairmen and chief executives of 22 of the UK’s biggest companies making such a strong case for more flexible working yesterday is great news, and perhaps unsurprising to us at the CIPD, given our long track record of championing the well established business case for embracing better ways of working that fit with modern lives. The chief executives and chairmen, under the banner of the Agile Future Forum which was set up to help revolutionise traditional working practices with a view to boosting the UK economy, have given the business case another boost with their own research, published this morning.  They find that flexible working provides benefits equivalent to 3% to 13% of workforce costs.

Our research has shown that flexible working is linked to higher levels of employee engagement and wellbeing, which in turn has been proven to have a positive impact on workplace productivity. What’s more, it enables organisations to attract and retain talent from more diverse backgrounds, with a greater variety of skills and experience and therefore better equipped to meet the needs of increasingly diverse customer base.

However, while the CIPD’s 2012 survey
Flexible working provision and uptake found that 96% of employers provide some form of flexible working to at least some staff, there has been little increase in the actual use of flexible working over the last decade, with the vast majority of flexible working accounted for by flexi-time and part-time working. Six in ten employees that don’t have access to flexible working would like to take-up flexible working. Research from the 2011 Workplace Employment Relations Survey also finds there was no general increase in employers’ provision of flexible working between 2004 and 2011.

These findings suggest that the use of flexible working has hit a plateau and more needs to be done if we really are to build more truly agile and flexible workplaces to increase productivity.

Too many employers treat flexible working as a perk, available to more senior employers only, or as a concession available only to working mums, and the range of flexible working practices adopted remains fairly limited, with options such as job sharing, remote and home working and annualised hours far less common (and often limited to senior managers only).

For attitudes and perceptions to change, flexible working certainly needs to be seen as a modern way to do business embraced by managers as all levels, as opposed to solely an employee relations issue. But HR departments still have a crucial role to play. Embedding the cultural changes required relies on the development of line managers with the skills and confidence to manage people flexibly. Although there is an extremely strong business case, it is important not to minimise the challenges that line managers can see. HR is critical to ensuring they are equipped to resolve these challenges to reap the benefits of more flexible teams.

Flexible ways of working are, of course, just one means of building the kind of organisational agility required to succeed in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. Helping HR to lead the charge in building the required agility, the CIPD has teamed up with Gary Hamel to facilitate an
online hackathon to identify and tackle the key barriers to adaptability. Rigid organisational structures and an absence of diversity in the workforce are undoubtedly high up amongst those barriers.

Drawing on the insights from our hackathon and other research projects, we would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with the Agile Future Forum to help more businesses realise the potential of more agile ways of working, to create better work and working lives for the benefit of businesses, economies and society.

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  • At last we have chief executives promoting Agile Working as a business benefit and not just an employee perk. This should be a turning point for many HR functions. Instead of being seen as the source of additional costs and barriers for line managers HR can now promote new working patterns as part of business strategy.

    The first of the five principles in the AFF report is "Be business-led - don't leave it all to HR". This is a sad reflection of the role of HR in many organisations - i.e. that it is not leading the business. HR should be proposing agile working based on its contribution to the bottom line. Let's see the 'Human Resources' function justifying it's recommendations based on the effectiveness of the workforce as a business resource.

    Over the last 20 years I've been associated with research into flexible working in its various forms. Consistently the evidence has shown that it improves productivity, saves costs, reduces employee turnover and can halve absenteeism. Yet it is still seen as a cost to the business and a burden on managers. Now HR has the chance to turn this around, show leadership at senior levels, educate managers on the new world of work and justify their existence as business partners.

    Peter Thomson

    co-author of 'Future Work' (Palgrave 2011)

  • Anonymous

    This is very encouraging  initiative  by the Agile Future Forum Working. Their title suggest they moving beyond Flexible Working as many professional have moved from Work-life balance to work-life integration.

    For a discussion of  difference between Flexible and Agile Working please see