Last year, as businesses were forced to find ways of reducing their fixed costs, there was ironically a positive unintended consequence; business owners, HR and employees alike all began to think much more innovatively about different short term employment options to ease the burden of high salary costs in tough times.
I was impressed by a law firm, for example, who offered development secondments to businesses or charities, 3 month travel or research sabbaticals, extended paternity/maternity leave and 4 day working weeks – all intended as temporary measures to reduce costs. The firm certainly didn’t want to lose its talented lawyers simply because there was a blip in client demand. In fact, these flexible options were universally welcomed and people returned to work feeling refreshed and reenergised – and valued by the firm.
This year, we now see the seismic shifts in the economy as change for the longer term, and perhaps even change for good – in both senses of that phrase. Most companies have to rethink their business models so that they can be much more agile and responsive to their markets and customers. Changing the business model is a good reason to change the way we think about employment options – and we could use some of those creative approaches that worked so well in the crisis.
In my own firm, for example, we realised that the option of working as an associate, rather than as a full time employee, could be seen as attractive for those who were seeking more flexible hours due to family commitments. The business now has the advantage of being able to draw in the right resources for the work at the right time, and equally, our talented consultants have more freedom to do the work they want to do. We are also experimenting with contracting out some of our core support services such as IT, finance and marketing. SME businesses don’t necessarily need full-time support in these roles, but we do still need the talent and input of ideas. Once you free up your thinking from traditional forms of employment – and make sure that the new deals deliver clear mutual benefits – you can create some real win-win scenarios.
We also know that younger people are more attracted by flexibility and variety in their work; portfolio careers could soon become a norm for these Generation Yers, not just the preserve of the mature person making the transition from full-time commitment to retirement. Recently the CIPD reported a 20% increase in the number of part-time contracts and in the number of companies using sub-contracting or outsourcing.
So our challenge is to design attractive new ‘work packages’ that can be fulfilled by people working on reduced hours or contracts. Our businesses will benefit from having the flexibility and responsiveness of ‘talent on demand’ and without the fixed overheads. Talented workers will benefit from the increased autonomy and ability to flex both the volume of work and in many cases when and where they do it. We know that flexible work options are highly valued, especially by talented people who see the opportunity to enrich their working lives through having the time to pursue other activities, hobbies and experiences.
Moving to more flexible employment/ work options does mean paying careful attention to the new psychological contract – it can only work if it delivers benefits to all. But if we do our research, and find out what our people want and value, we can work out some brilliant solutions that will change the future of work as we know it.
Virginia Merritt is managing partner at Stanton Marris, a consultancy that specialises in making strategy work through effective leadership, employee engagement and organisation development. By helping organisations make sense of the issues that stop change being sustainable, it enables them to manage the risks associated with strategy development and execution. For more information visit www.stantonmarris.com