A flexible concept of flexible working

Most people seem to think flexible working is a good idea. But do they actually get what it means?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A poll of Orange’s SMS Business Jury, a panel of small business owner/ managers who respond to questions via text message, found that there seems to be a bit of confusion about what flexible working actually means. Just over half of respondents thought it meant getting time off in lieu in return for working late; about 26% thought it meant working from home; one in ten thought it meant working remotely, and a mere 7% thought it meant working part-time.

In practice, of course, it can mean some or all of the above – an option that wasn’t actually on the survey. But nonetheless, the variation in answers does show that the concept is interpreted, well, flexibly by different owner/managers.

The issue, of course, is that if the people running companies don’t really understand the basic concept, they’re going to have a hard job instigating a flexible working policy that provides staff with a genuine benefit. And if they end up getting the policy wrong, it might even have the opposite effect – its limitations can actually alienate employees who feel that their own situation can’t be accommodated. Which rather defeats the purpose of the whole thing…

And it’s worth getting it right: 40% said flexible working would decrease stress in the workplace. Even if you think this sounds a bit woolly, there might also be some more tangible benefits: 23% said it increased staff loyalty and 19% thought it actually boosted a company’s productivity (not to mention reducing your carbon footprint - cited as the key benefit by an eco-swotty 3%).

On the other hand, there’s also a more deep-rooted problem with flexible working – many people remain unconvinced by its merits. More than half of these owner-managers still think people work best in the office, and nearly 40% said they hadn’t done any home-working in the last 12 months – not exactly a sign that they’re embracing the flexible ethos…

There’s clearly still a concern that out of sight means out of mind – ‘a lack of trust in staff’ was seen as the biggest challenge for businesses looking to implement such a policy. Particularly in the summer when the weather’s good, bosses appear to be worried that they’d be giving employees a free pass to top-up their tan in the park and stuff their faces with ice-cream...

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