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Charles Elvin, Chief Executive of the Institute of Leadership and Management talks to Sergio Russo of HRreview on the subject of flexible working and home working.

The ILM has recently praised the Work from Home Week and published a report on flexible working. Why do you support working from home?

We believe that flexible working can be very advantageous to a business, as it boasts a wide range of benefits from higher levels of staff satisfaction to increased productivity.

Recent ILM research has shown the positive effects that flexible working can bring, for example four out of five managers reported improvements in productivity and commitment as a result. We also uncovered that 85 per cent of managers felt flexible working increased staff wellbeing, and this should be a key consideration for any business.

Why do you think more businesses should explore flexible working patterns?

As the economy improves and more vacancies open up, it is becoming increasingly important for businesses to embrace flexible working patterns. 73 per cent of managers have reported that offering flexible working helped them to retain talented staff members, while 64 per cent also reported an increase in the business’ ability to attract talent. With increasing consumer expectations of round-the-clock customer service, flexible working also helps organisations better respond to customer’s needs.

Access to flexible working is clearly becoming a priority for workers so companies must consider making allowances for this. Our New Year survey found that achieving a work/life balance is a top resolution for workers this year, so it seems much less likely that businesses with rigid working routines are going to be able to maintain the best staff in the current climate.

Does it suit every type of business? Where would it not work?

While flexible working can be very beneficial to a business, it is not enough to simply change the company policy: the right skills and systems must be in place.

Almost nine out of ten managers reported that strong communication was essential when leading a flexible workforce, while 87 per cent claimed that the ability to give clear instruction was also a key skill. Employers will benefit by developing these core managerial skills at all levels to ensure they are well equipped for flexible working to be a success.

Is there still some resistance to flexible working?

Flexible working is increasingly popular, with 94% of UK employers offering it in some form. However, there are cultural barriers that need confronting if working from home is to become more widespread.

We found that one in three workers have heard colleagues make derogatory comments about those working flexibly, and 27 per cent think flexible working is inappropriate for managers. In order to alleviate the anxieties associated with flexible working, we would recommend that employers establish clear policies and criteria and communicate their policies to the workforce effectively.

ILM report shows that CEOs and senior roles tend to be more supportive of flexible working patterns. How would you explain that?

Our research found that it was generally those with no experience of flexible working – and those who feel that they can’t ask for it – are negative about its effects. Senior leaders are more likely have experienced flexible working patterns and therefore have more knowledge of the benefits flexible working can bring to the workforce and to the business overall.

To address negative attitudes, organisations can trial flexible working in a controlled way, communicate their policies clearly, and openly and honestly discuss these opportunities.

One of the most frequent points of criticism on flexible working is that it can be career limiting. To what extent do you agree with that?

Flexible working can be beneficial to both the employee and the business, but it requires the right climate in which to flourish. If you don’t have face-to-face contact every day, for example, other clear measures of productivity and success should be considered.

If flexible working is to become embedded in a business, it is important that managers are suitably trained in order to effectively manage flexible teams. Our research has shown that the majority of employers are aware of this issue; 83 per cent of managers reported that performance management and target setting skills were crucial when leading a flexible workforce. A further 87 per cent highlighted the importance of effective planning, another key skill when supporting flexible workers.

Do you believe that, from an employee’s perspective, working from home can limit opportunities for role modelling and ongoing learning and development?

Professional development does not necessarily depend on how much time employees spend in the workplace – more often it depends on how employees utilise the resources open to them. By spending less time commuting and more time focusing on the work at hand, employees are more likely to be aware of opportunities for development and more open to benefit from these opportunities.

Working from home can also be a lonely affair, how should companies ensure their staff still spend time together?

Businesses with a flexible workforce do need to expend more efforts ensuring there is still a social element to the workplace. ILM research has shown that 42 per cent of workers are motivated by good relationships with their colleagues, so it is important that managers lead their teams in a way which brings people together despite differing schedules.

This, again, emphasizes the need for effective planning skills, as such abilities can help managers to ensure that workers have the chance to socialise and collaborate with their colleagues in the office or at meetings and social gatherings. A recent Christmas survey we conducted showed that even in frugal times, 76 per cent of offices still organised a festive party for their workers, illustrating that managers are aware of the importance of social occasions.

The ILM report indicates that women tend to adopt flexible working patterns more than men. Is there any reason to believe that men will catch up in the future?

Our research does show that more women work part-time than their male counterparts. However, the number of men is constantly increasing, with 38 per cent of managers reporting that men in their team work part time and 16 per cent claiming that men in their team were in job share roles.

We also found that found that men were just as likely to work flexibly as women, with 88 per cent of male workers claiming that they had experience flexible working during their careers compared with 90 per cent of female workers. While working from home may have begun as a way to help mothers care for their children, our research shows that it is steadily becoming the norm across the board.

Which scenario do you foresee in the next five years for flexible working? 

From what I have seen, the flexible workforce is only going to continue to expand. Managers are becoming increasingly aware of both the advantages of flexible working patterns to the business, and the skills and systems needed to facilitate a flexible workforce.

Advances in technology are also helping flexible working to progress, with 79 per cent of workers claiming that ICT makes working from home more widely available and feasible. If the job market continues to improve in the coming years, I think there will be few companies who will continue with a rigid working regime.