46 per cent of UK workers want flexible working options, but only 6.2 per cent of jobs offer it, says Beth Leslie from Inspiring Interns. Imagine this: you have an interesting, well-paid job at a company which has no set working hours and unlimited holiday allowance. Sounds like your dream role, right?
Now imagine you’re the boss of that company. You pay rent and electricity for an office that staff may never use. With no obligation to work, your employees can use your money to spend their days sunning on a beach in Barbados.
These conflicting opinions on flexible working have led to an uncomfortable clash between employees and employers: 46 per cent of UK workers want flexible working options, but only 6.2 per cent of jobs offer it.
But what if a company did capitulate to employee demands, and implement the policy described above? Would productivity crash and burn, or would it, conversely, rise?
The Benefits of an Hours-Based Pay Model
At presents, hours worked is the key metric in assessing employee value. Full-time workers get paid more than part-time workers for the same role. Employees who clock in substantial overtime are more likely to be promoted than clock-watchers.
This system is based on the assumption that the longer people work, the more they produce. Envisage two workers asked to work at maximum productivity for an hour: Employee A, who subsequently produces ten widgets, and Employee B, who produces just five. A manager paying a set hourly wage of £10 p/h thinks that by hiring Employee A and compelling him to work a full eight-hour day, she can gain eighty widgets with a labour cost of just £1 each, a much better deal that paying £2 of labour cost for each widget the slower Employee B produced.
The Reality of an Hours-Based Pay Model
Unfortunately for this manager, Employee A is not a robot who produces widgets at a consistent rate. Employee A is a conscientious worker but, like all human beings, he is prone to tiredness and burnout. He often starts and ends sluggishly, producing just a couple of widgets an hour.
Moreover, like all workers, Employee A cannot sustain widget-making for 40 hours a week without getting bored. So sometimes he stops work and takes a break. And, like two-thirds of surveyed workers, he spends a portion of every workday surfing non-work related websites.
Sometimes he gets into a productivity streak but is interrupted by a company meeting or a co-worker coming over to chat. With no need for anyone to be time-conscious, these can drag on for an hour or more.
Employee A knows that completing tasks quickly only means that he will be expected to take on more and more work. He also knows that he cannot sustain maximum productivity for forty hours a week. So he does not push himself as hard as he could.
The end result? His daily production rate averages twenty widgets a day.
The Benefits of a Work-Based Pay Model
Sensible employers will recognise that it is impossible to hire a workforce devoid of the traits Employee A displays. They will also recognise that most of these problems come from overwork and over-long hours.
Imagine that the business needs all their employees to produce 20 widgets a day to break even, and 30 widgets a day to bring in a substantial profit. The manager decides to try something radical and announces to all employees that the only thing they will be judged on from now on is meeting this 30 p/d target. They can take as long or as little time as they like to do it.
Employee A realises that by working incredibly hard at the start of each weekday he can take the afternoons off to indulge his passion for paddle-boarding. Feeling motivated, he sets about his task with enthusiasm. He works at full capacity for four hours, producing 40 widgets in total. Appreciative of the work-life balance his company offers him, he turns down recruiters trying to poach him for rival firms. His happiness increases, making him a more engaged and productive worker.
Focusing on Longer-Term Output
Businesses understand that tracking their own output day-to-day is pointless. A big outlay on a specific day (like payday!) could incorrectly suggest that they are plummeting into financial ruin, and vice-versus.
Workers should be viewed in the same way. All employees will have days when their productivity plummets – perhaps they are sick, or a personal issue has made them unhappy. But they will also have days where they feel incredibly motivated and their productivity rises. Only by taking a long-term view can companies accurately assess their overall performance.
A flexible working policy allows employees to fit their workload to their motivational levels. Employee A may take a day or two off to battle a cold, then compensate with longer hours for the rest of the week. His overall productivity is higher than if he worked the full week ill and demoralised.
Employers are understandably worried that unlimited flexibility will only encourage employee laziness. However, there is an easy solution: setting clear, fair targets and KPIs, and letting go any employee who does not meet them.
If Employee B struggles with her widget production but responds by working longer hours and asking for help from her manager, the company should keep her on. If her low numbers correspond with never being in the office or answering emails, she should be pushed out.
Good workers can be trusted with flexible working policies. And the desirability of flexible work means companies that offer them will receive a much higher volume of good applicants.
Preventing a Loss of Community
Another common objection to flexible working by employers is that it will lead to the death of company culture or community. Generally, these fears are overblown. Employees can be told to come in for specific times and reasons, such as for company meetings. Work days out and team-building exercises can still be provided. And colleagues can constantly communicate with each other even outside the office, through email, phone, and platforms such as Slack.
Besides, normalising the ability to work from home will quickly cause the novelty to wear off. If the office offers a good working space and useful equipment many employees will still choose to do most their work from it. They just won’t feel the need to sit uselessly at their desks for ten hours a day.