How should leaders support and respond to the rise of Flexible Working demands in 2023?

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With the increasing adoption of the 4-day working week and the new Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill currently being considered in parliament, the pressure for employers to become more accommodating of flexible working structures has never been higher. People are re-considering their career choices, motivations and pushing for work that better fits their priorities. These are symptoms of the ‘Great Resignation’, which arguably could also be known as the ‘Great Reassessment’.

As employees rethink what they want from work, leaders must respond in tandem, both making sure they act on demands to retain current and attract new talent, and as an expression of their commitment to employee wellbeing, inclusivity and mutual respect.

The servant of the company

Leaders are the central servants of any company. The expectation is that they should know how to shepherd the company in the right direction. In an era with increased pressure for change, this means facilitating different needs and finding ways to make it work, with a willingness to listen, collaborate and direct at the same time.

A leader’s purpose is supporting others, even when it means a painful disruption of the status quo. Often, this requires recognising that the basis for new demands is not always as out of the blue as they seem, and simply finding ways to embed them as norms to ensure employees routinely benefit from the system, not are subject to it.

The shorter working week is no new thing

Across the UK, more companies have been trialling, and some eventually adopting, the four-day week as standard. This signals a new wave of employee demands entrenched as work policy, but the idea is not as revolutionary as many think.

People were shortening the working week long before the concept of a four-day week became common discourse. Looking back before Covid-19, Fridays were already a bit of a “soft” working day for most office-based people; they had casual Fridays or half days. Now, with the “return to work” and hybrid working policies which commonly allow people to work three days at the office and two days at home, we have shifted to an informal four-day working week structure already. The next step to make it official feels like a natural evolution.

Of course, it is important to acknowledge that this mainly applies to the “white collar” economy, those workers that are not physically client-facing or serve in industries. Other industries may apply their own, more flexible iterations of the four-day working week.

New generations, particularly millennials and zoomers tend to look at work in a very different way to their predecessors. With the majority being ‘digital natives’, they don’t prioritise location-based work as much. So, workplaces must evolve their approach to suit and attract the workforce of today and tomorrow.

Simply creating a new workplace policy is one thing, but to sustainably employ a shorter working week whilst ensuring continued quality of work, leaders must put key performance indicators (KPIs) in place. It is also helpful to use remote monitoring tools to help teams measure their output, and for managers and leaders themselves to undergo targeted training to best guide a distributed workforce.

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Honouring the needs of the individual as well as the community

In today’s knowledge and information economy, we are moving to a society where the needs of the individual are trumping those of the community. This is reflected in the rise of demands for evolutions in national policy such as the new Employee Relations Bill, an amendment to the Employment Rights Act 1996. The bill, if passed, will make some rigid companies change their practice and allow for changes to individual circumstances. It will update the current right for employees to request flexible working in various ways and ingrain the new individual-first approach to work.

As the workforce is looking for a better life-work balance, this will create new challenges for HR departments and for recruitment in general. It is a revolution in the company-employee relationship which will potentially give more rights to employees. Organisations will need to adapt fast to accommodate the requests to work from home and the new challenges of a distributed workforce.

For organisations this might look like processes such as:

Updating company culture: This should focus on the wellbeing of the workforce and will include team days at the office and team-building events, as well as regular video presentations from leadership focusing on culture, training and creating a sense of belonging.

Managing meetings overload:  Not being physically in an office cannot mean always being connected to a Zoom meeting. Although accommodating different working patterns, employees need time to actually action things, not just be in meetings. Leaders must respect that.

More regular check-ins: Beyond the standard yearly appraisal, leaders will need to make more of an effort to connect with scattered or flexibly-working teams. Not only is it important to get their regular feedback, but to check on their wellbeing and ensure that the current working structures are working for them.

Designated education for leaders: Managers need to learn new skills to motivate, manage and develop a hybrid workforce. This could become part of the curriculum of business schools and HR departments alike in the future.

Remaining responsive to employees is the new norm

With unemployment at below 5% in the UK, even though inflation and a looming recession are here, organisations need to fight to attract and retain talent. It can be very costly to do this, but the more progressive companies, those actively responsible to employee preferences will be able to actually reduce their cost of recruitment in the long run, attract better talent and run a more efficient workforce.

The mood has dramatically changed in the last three years, the pendulum is now firmly in the camp of the employee. People are not sticking to any company for very long, thus being responsive to employees’ needs is a must.

Conclusion

Working from home and flexible work arrangements are here to stay. Bill or no bill, the four-day working week becoming standard or not, progressive companies are already enacting new work practices catering to individual needs. The working world is already adapting as needed and has been for many years; it is only just now that businesses are rushing to label the trends.

In 2023, it is important for leaders to embrace the conscious narrative of change, recognising their responsibility to facilitate the shift that any employees are seeking and remaining open to the various adjustments that might need. This will be as much about attitude as tangible changes, but the good news is that most of the processes have already started happening. It’s just a matter of being prepared to set them in motion.

Source: Business Leader

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