· 3 min read · Features

Delivering strategy through flexible working

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The introduction of flexible working with legislation focused on caring responsibilities has generated the notion that flexible working is a benefit to working women, and in particular working mothers.

Despite much data showing the business benefits of flexible working, the idea stubbornly persists that only those not really committed to their careers would want any kind of flexible working arrangements. The government has recently announced that, from 2015, the right to request flexible working will be open to all but will this change culture or will the attitude still prevail that flexible working is really only for those with childcare needs?

Recently, we have seen some organisations making this cultural shift by re-branding and refocusing flexible working away from a benefit for the individual towards an organisational tool for achieving business strategy. There are three reasons that organisations we know of have been developing flexible working. They are:

  • To achieve carbon reduction
  • As an Olympic legacy
  • To withstand the rigours of recession.

Here, we will explore the first reason for introducing flexible working in more detail. A full picture of developing flexible working as a business tool can be found in the IES publication "The HR Year Ahead 2013".

Workplaces are key settings in which to reduce carbon emissions. Along with homes and schools they are the three basic 'microenvironments' in which individuals pass most of their daily lives. Therefore employers can do much to introduce concepts of carbon emission reduction but this cannot necessarily be done in isolation. It is important to consider both rebound and replacement impacts where emissions saved through reduction in commuting are simply replaced elsewhere: through increased business travel; journeys from home that would usually be undertaken during the commute, and increases in emissions from the home office. Also, simply getting people working from home on occasion is not enough unless significant changes can also be made to the scale and carbon impacts of the office environment.

A study IES carried out in 2012 for the Scottish Government looked at the impact of workplace initiatives and found that flexible working had the most profound impact on low carbon behaviours of all the initiatives looked at. Four new 'profiles' for different working styles of fixed, home, flexible and mobile working were implemented in the case of Aberdeenshire Council.

While the scheme was motivated by the need to rationalise office buildings, it has resulted in substantial carbon savings. The Council implemented a Worksmart programme to focus on reduced transport and a reduction in the number of commuting miles and a Workspace programme to reduce the number of small offices run by the Council to deliver both cost and energy savings.

Over 1,000 staff are now participating in Worksmart. Based on 722 employees' travel claims for first half of 2011/2012, the value of reduction in business mileage from the previous year was £46,632. The council has estimated that they have achieved a 68 per cent saving in commuting mileage corresponding to 136,588 saved commuting miles and 33,995 CO2 g/km emissions.

The Council reported that for some the whole experience of work was rearranged so, as well as their location and hours, their relationships with colleagues and managers and their use of IT systems all changed significantly. The report noted that 'this is not simply a case of removing barriers to change from longstanding arrangements (eg the inefficiency or location of buildings), but the positive opportunity to build new institutions and arrangements, with resource efficiencies and carbon efficiencies at the middle'.

It is essential that flexible working is not just bolted onto traditional ways of management. Employees will only embrace mobile and flexible working if they feel it will not impact negatively on their careers, if their bosses also work in this way and if organisations get to grips with managing people who are in the office less often, if at all. Organisations which keep an office-based desk for everyone, while encouraging mobile and flexible working and whose managers exhibit office-based presenteeism are unlikely to achieve mobile and flexible working, no matter how fully they have thought through and laid out their desire to support reduction in carbon emissions.

If you are committed to flexible working, recognise the business benefits and want to develop a culture of flexibility, then lifting your flexible working provision from a policy to support working parents to a key tool for achieving business strategy is the way to ensure flexible working is open to all, supports your business need and impacts positively on your bottom line.

Mary Mercer, (pictured) principal consultant at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES).