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Flexible working: a competitive advantage for businesses?

Ever since the first national lockdown, many employers and employees have been adjusting to a new norm. Working from home has brought both challenges and opportunities. But new research from Direct Line suggests that it’s something people want for their future, with more than 13 million people planning to ask for permanent flexible working arrangements after coronavirus restrictions are fully lifted. 

For employees, working from home means the time saved on a commute can be spent with family and friends, or used to prioritise health and exercise. Many workers have been able to save money too. In the longer term, if working from home takes off, companies will be able to save money on office space as well. 

Why it is a competitive advantage for businesses 

On the surface, there are a lot of positives. But there’s also an underlying point. As more businesses offer the option to work from home or choose flexible hours, those who don’t could risk being left behind. When given the opportunity, potential staff are likely to choose companies that offer flexible working arrangements over those who don’t. 

That said, offering the bare minimum may not be enough to capture the attention of the best talent. Of course it varies between industries but in general, before the coronavirus pandemic, working from home and flexible hours were ‘perks’ in any job. A lot of people were still expected to commute into an office every day. 

The benefits of flexible working for companies are clear: happy, healthy employees who can do what’s required of them in a way that fits with other priorities in their lives are generally better at their jobs. These benefits were previously only explored by a handful of workplaces. But the national lockdown shone a light on what’s possible if you trust your employees to work from home. 

So as flexible working practices become more commonplace, what will businesses have to offer to stand out? 

A word of warning about flexible working   

The key thing about ensuring flexible working is actually a competitive advantage for your business is how it works in practice. We’ve all seen the horror stories about bosses using remote surveillance tactics to check in on what their workforce is doing. Tools can track your login times, your keystrokes and even take screenshots at regular intervals – all to see whether you’re getting your work done. It’s the same as a manager breathing down your neck in an office. 

You may entice all the best talent in your industry with promises of flexibility, but if this is what they’re met with in reality, they will soon leave. You won’t maintain a competitive edge. 

Flexible working only works when businesses trust their employees. According to one article, the best remote working policy can be summed up in three words: we trust you. Of course, employees may need support (especially during these difficult and uncertain times), but they also deserve to be treated like adults. 

In the Direct Line research, many of those (28%) surveyed had the confidence to ask for flexible working and hoped it would be accepted because they’ve demonstrated they’ve been successful working from home during the pandemic. Indeed, it has proved it’s entirely possible for many workforces – especially when you take into account that work has been completed during what’s been a particularly stressful time for everyone. For example, many families had to juggle work with education when the schools were closed. 

If employees are trusted, the focus of flexible working turns to support – ensuring remote workers have a good set-up or providing opportunities for interacting between colleagues, for example. 

Without trust, it’s on productivity and checking in. If you’re planning to implement flexible working, of course you can have certain requirements in place to ensure that managers are up-to-date on the progress of any work. But to reap the real benefits, you need to trust and support your team. That’s how you’ll both attract and retain employees in a newly competitive environment where flexible working is bound to become more common.