5 ways flexible working will supercharge productivity…

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Not working flexibly yet? Your organisation could be being held back

Comedian Tim Vine has a rather cheesy joke that goes:

So I said to the gym instructor: ‘Can you teach me to do the splits?’

He said: ‘How flexible are you?’

I said: ‘I can’t make Tuesdays.’

Whether that’s got you rolling your eyes or splitting your sides, there’s a subtle truism buried in his rather obvious pun that reveals the way we live and work today.

For much as we want to learn and develop and be more productive, we all seem to be perpetually overloaded and unable to make time for the things that are often among the most important. In our 24/7 culture in this 24/7 city, there always seems to be too much to do in far too little time.

That’s why the concept of flexibility is so important (in a more metaphorical sense, of course), and why it has become so immensely popular in recent years among London businesses of all sizes. On the slim off-chance you hadn’t heard already, flexible working means empowering employees to work in ways that better suit them – so allowing them more flexibility in their working hours, working patterns and working locations.

This isn’t just a passing fad, because the advantages to businesses and their staff are tangible and quite incredible. Improved productivity is among the top five benefits cited by managers following a switch to flexible working, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) Survey from 2012 of more than 1,000 employers and 2,000 employees.

In fact, research from workplace provider Regus from earlier this year found that three quarters of office workers (74%) believe that flexible working boosts their productivity. Pretty amazing, isn’t it? Though it’s not all that surprising when you understand the driving forces behind that productivity lift…

1. Better use of time

We all know too well that 3pm afternoon slump – or do we? Perhaps youpeak in the afternoons, but just can’t get your brain into gear in the early morning. Maybe you always get second wind at 8pm. The idea of flexible working is that employees are given the opportunity to work to the rhythms that best suit their productivity peaks and troughs throughout the day, other work commitments withstanding. By definition that means they are likely to be more productive in the hours they choose to work.

But better use of time, leading to improved productivity, is also facilitated by employees being allowed to be more physically flexible (no, I’m not referring to that doing-the-splits joke again). If staff are able to work in the location that best suits them on any given day, they can reduce travel time.

Imagine being able to pop five minutes down the road to your local flexible workspace to be uber-productive for the hours that best suit you, slotting in the school run and the dentist in the most efficient way possible; rather than spending two-and-a-half hours with your face squished into someone’s armpit on the Northern Line for your full commute to the office. I think I know which I’d prefer, and which would make me more time-efficient throughout the whole day.

If you want the stats to back it up, the Anywhere Working initiative that supports flexible working has calculated that cutting the average UK worker’s commute for three days a week would save some 1.5 days every single month – a huge amount of time that can be better spent being productive in either work or personal activities. This brings us neatly to…

2. Greater work/life balance

The flexibility to have greater ownership over their own time gives employees the opportunity to level out their work/life balance. Fitting in those personal commitments and working at more convenient locations means the beginning of the end for 10pm finishes, huddled over the office PC to get those last touches done on presentations or that last batch of emails sent off.

Few would underestimate the positive benefits this can have on a team member’s life – particularly if they generally feel sleep-deprived, or are a parent. Currently, more than a third of UK office workers feel they’re sacrificing sleep to fit in both work and personal commitments, according to 2013 research of more than 3,000 UK workers, from Regus. Those surveyed said a shorter commute (21%) and greater flexibility in work location (16%) would be key ways to help them get the shut-eye they need, and to spend more time with their families.

Home-working isn’t always the answer though. Regus has also found, in another study, that six in 10 workers feel distracted when they work from home due to their families demanding attention, which makes shared flexible workspaces well worth exploring.

If a business facilitates that brilliant benefit simply by adopting flexible working practices, it can expect a further productivity boost thanks to…

3. Reduced stress, therefore greater output

Thanks to these improvements in work/life balance and time management, employees who adopt flexible working generally feel a reduction in stress levels. They are more in control of their time, and feel less like they are making sacrifices for work. The government has recognised this, and reduced stress is one of the key drivers behind its flexible working push. The Department of Work and Pensions and the Department of Health have identified that reduced stress is a key benefit of flexible working.

Stress doesn’t only inhibit the pace of work – it tends to up the number of sick days in an organisation too. We all know stress wears down the immune system – not to mention leave taken directly because of stress. So it’s no surprise that the CIPD’s 2012 survey, mentioned above, found that some 56% of employers recorded a drop in absenteeism after switching to flexible working.

It’s very simple: ensure that more employees are at work, and are happy and unstressed while working, and productivity goes up.

4. Lowering staff churn

It’s not that surprising, bearing in mind the benefits of flexible working already outlined, that this new way of working tends to keep staff happier. As a knock-on effect, businesses report greater staff retention and recruitment if they are able to offer flexible working. Where productivity came within the top five benefits of flexible working cited by workers and managers in the CIPD’s survey, the other four were: improved staff retention, improved motivation, improved employee engagement, and better recruitment. Some 76% of managers questioned said flexible working had improved employee retention, making it the number one reason for adopting flexible practices.

Every manager who has ever gone through the painful and costly process of making someone redundant, or indeed expensive and incredibly time-consuming rounds of recruitment, knows that staff churn is one of the least desirable traits for any organisation. A revolving rota of employees not only sucks up managerial resource, it also drains staff morale.

So if businesses can avoid staff churn to any extent, productivity blossoms as a result, on multiple counts. This is why, for flexible working aficionados, it is encouraging to learn that flexible working is so intrinsically linked to staff retention and talent attraction.

5. The responsibility factor

It might sound counter-intuitive, but employees actually tend to work harder when they are outside the office. Not just because they feel a greater sense of control and are less stressed, but because they feel more of an obligation to be visible to teammates.

A 2012 study by polling company Ipsos MORI found 47% of employees surveyed said they attempt to be “more visible” by sending more emails and making more calls, while three in five worked longer hours when they worked flexibly.

Published in London Loves Business

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