A company needed to reduce its office space. It set up a hot-desking system and offered opportunities for staff to work from home. Brilliant, the directors thought. Flexible working is going to benefit everyone. What could go wrong?

Unfortunately, the company culture still revolved around presenteeism, where staff come into work despite being ill or work longer office hours than required. With a shortage of desk space, staff began competing to arrive earlier and earlier each morning to claim a spot.

‘It completely backfired on them,’ says Natalie Gill, programme director at Timewise, an organisation that helps businesses develop flexible working practices and recruit workers.

Behind the times

Gill told this story to advisers at the Pimfa Wealth of Diversity Conference earlier this month.

According to Gill, 87% of the UK working population would adopt greater flexibility if it could, but flexibility is only advertised in 11% of jobs. By not offering flexibility – be that job shares, part time, working from home, working more in busy times but less in quieter times – companies could lose out on top talent and have to fork out the costs of rehiring.

But, as Gill’s example demonstrates, it is not as easy as putting a policy in place and forgetting about it.

According to fellow panellist and Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development chief executive Peter Cheese, a fundamental culture shift is needed at UK businesses.

‘We have been going to work Monday to Friday for as long as we can remember,’ he says. ‘Where did this come from? The Bible? No. The reality is these are very old paradigms of work.’

Cheese and Gill say culture change starts from the top, making sure leadership understand the business benefits of flexible working. ‘Understanding it is about responsible business is also important,’ Cheese says. ‘And making sure chief executives don’t think this is just fiddling around at the edge of some politically correct agenda.’

Businesses may still find themselves holding back from introducing flexible working, however. Performance management, fairness of appraisals, and an ‘always on’ culture of working, even when you are not supposed to, are all ingrained factors that can make flexible working difficult to implement and monitor.

Fair treatment

Speaking at the event, shadow Treasury minister Anneliese Dodds says she had seen cases in which those not looking to work flexibly were concerned about how their own performance might measure up. ‘I think, in those circumstances, it’s really important people have trust in management, and trust they will be treated fairly. The commitment people have when they are treated fairly is so much higher than if they are treated unfairly,’ she says.

Dodd says most of her own staff work part time and she has members of staff who have registered disabilities, for whom flexibility can be very important.

‘But we also have to trust the teams,’ Cheese adds. ‘We treat our employees like children, telling them what to wear and when to come in. We have a long history of not trusting people downwards. Just let them all get on with their damn jobs.’

Even with practical barriers ironed out, the resources needed to implement changes to working structure and a worry about business productivity might be a concern for businesses.

Gill says flexible working is hard to quantify. But self-reporting has revealed that around 73% of managers felt teams who were working flexibly had increased performance and productivity.

Cheese adds: ‘There is a macho culture of thinking you can pound your way through, work all night. But are you productive? No. Are you going to make poor decisions? Absolutely. Is it good for your wellbeing? Profoundly not. We will show the industry a productive output by working more flexibly, but there will be other outcomes, like wellbeing.’

In terms of resources, Gill says it is easier to think about full-time equivalent (FTE) rather than headcount. ‘If you talk about headcount, a job share is two people, but if you talk about FTE it is about 1.2 people.’