Over 10 years ago I was asked to embrace flexible working in my team. I did. We led the way with it. I was impressed with the results, performance increased by 20%, employee engagement hit 100% and yet the first bit of feedback I got from my Manager was ‘I am a bit worried, apparently you and your team are never working and people have started calling you the part-timers?’ I was choked. Angry. Frustrated. Yet I held my nerve, told him we had done what was asked and embraced flexible working and threw some examples of how performance and output had increased across my team as our defence.
Flexible working is the ability to start and finish work at times decided by the employee, with core hours guiding when employees need to be available. Flexibility works to meet business and employee needs. I had one ground-rule with my team – your diary says where you are and I can contact you (unless you have warned me otherwise). The funny thing is I never did need to contact them or check up on them. I trusted my team and they trusted me.
When I first began my career the definition of ‘doing a good job’ correlated with the amount of time you were seen to be in the office, despite 9 out of 10 employees saying their best ideas came when they were not in the office.
Even 25 years ago before phones were connected to the internet research showed that giving people the ability to work flexibly significantly increased employee satisfaction whilst causing no reduction in output[i]. Today, extensive research shows flexible working improves staff retention, increases employee engagement, improve recruitment and helps ensure diversity of the workforce, which leads to a whole other list of benefits[ii]. Figures show organisations have reduced unscheduled time off by 50%, reduced sick leave by 33% or increased annual turnover by $50m[iii] due to flexible working.
So why, were 55% of British workers still tied to a desk last year?
I believe it all amounts to trust[iv]. Technology has caught up, making the impossible possible. Yet, if people don’t trust each other how can flexible working ever bring the extra £90bn to the UK economy or reduce commuting time by 533 million hours per year? Today, only 6.2% of jobs advertised make any reference to flexible working[v]. Trust is the key. It is the missing ingredient in the flexible working conundrum.
People don’t trust each other. Trust is the bridge between the known and the yet-to-be-known. A basic human encounter is the starting point of trust. Yet, technology is reducing these social encounters dramatically. One email pretending to be from your bank and your distrust-ometer increases.
The news is all about distrust. This morning 9 out of 10 articles were about deception, distrust. If this is the world we live in why would I trust anyone? People tend to trust in hierarchies below their own position. I trust my dog, my children, my partner. I don’t trust people who have power over me, the tax man, my mother-in-law, some of my bosses. It is all about balance. The only way to improve flexible working is to improve trust amount workers. I guess we had that in our ground rules when the flexible working worked so well for the team I led. I trusted my team and they trusted me. When I said I was working in Starbucks and they popped into Starbucks they could see I was working. I was honest. When one of my team went to watch his son at school sports day he was honest, I knew where he was. We had trust. There are many ways to increase trust in the workplace: Leaders need to give trust first, communicate effectively and authentically show up at work[vi]. Employees can diminish trust with the push of a button, for example, copying in everyone on an email, over-promising and under-delivering, telling half-truths or operating on the dark side of office politics[vii]. I remember saying I liked to talk to people, instead of using emails, and my boss at the time said ‘but then you don’t have any written proof about what they said’. Ironically this boss still doesn’t embrace flexible working as he doesn’t trust people. Until people trust each other then organisations are unlikely to trust flexible working, no matter what the benefits show. For more help on creating trust in your organisation please email us and we will send you our Trust Action fact sheet for free: firstname.lastname@example.org.
[i] Orpen, C. (1981). Effect of flexible working hours on employee satisfaction and performance: a field experiment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 66(1).
[ii] Employees to embrace flexible working. (2017). Harvard Business Review: Behavioural Economics. https://hbr.org/2017/11/how-we-nudged-employees-to-embrace-flexible-work
[iii] University of Kentucky Institute for Workplace Innovation.(2010).
[iv] Marcova, I., & Gillespie, A. (2008). Trust and Distrust: Sociocultural perspectives. Information Age Publishing: Charlotte: NC.
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