Can flexible working increase productivity?

As I prepare myself to go off on maternity leave for a second time, it has suddenly dawned on me that I will soon be a working mum with two dependants (four, if you count the dog and husband). How on earth will I fit everything in? Luckily, since having my first daughter, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives have been very supportive and granted flexible working where possible. This works well for me and my family, but does it really work for the business?

According to a report published by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) the rate of employment in women aged 25-54 hit a record high of 78% in 2017. Work-aged women are having children less frequently and later in life. Another study carried out by PwC has found women are taking off less time than ever after having a baby, so it’s clear there is a real desire or need for women to get back to work and continue their career after having their family.

A recent change in law also means dads can now take a break in employment to take a more active role in bringing up their children for that critical first year, so providing an attractive and flexible workplace has never been more critical.

According to PWC getting people back into work after a career break could provide a £1.7bn boost to the country’s annual economic output, so getting this right will ultimately benefit the whole nation.

So how can employers use flexible work patterns to encourage their staff to return to work and how can they ensure maximum productivity under these circumstances? Can employees working a shorter week achieve the same productivity as those who never seem to leave the office?

I recently read an article about a company in New Zealand who decided to trial a four-day working week while still paying out a fulltime salary. Employees were allowed to decide if they wanted to adopt the new four day work pattern or if they would prefer to work five days with the flexibility of shorter days to avoid rush hour traffic or help with childcare commitments.

The idea behind the trial was to see if flexible working would decrease staff stress levels, allowing better work/life balance and therefore increase productivity in the work place. Before the trial a study showed that only 54% of staff felt they could balance their work and home commitments, while after the trial this number jumped to 78%. Not really surprising given they are being paid a fulltime salary when only working a 32-hour week.

The company had wondered if giving employees an extra day to manage their home life would make them more focused and productive in the office – and data and evidence has proven this theory a success, so much so, they have now adopted this approach permanently. Not only did they record no decrease in productivity levels but they actually recorded an increase.

Mark Price, a former managing director of Waitrose and a former deputy chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, commented that he can’t see the four-day week taking off in the public sector. He said: ‘If everybody in the public sector was to work 28 hours a week rather than 35 you would have to increase the pay bill by 20% to cover that. It would mean taxes going up.’

Although he doubts this would be a popular decision, with more than half a million workers in the UK signed off with work-related stress or anxiety last year, amounting to 12.5m working days, the cost of not allowing staff to have a good work/life balance is already costing the economy dearly.

Clearly the concept of flexible working is about more than just fitting a work pattern around childcare or enabling work/life balance. There is cost of office space and transport to consider, plus an ability to recruit to a workforce from more than one region, which can enhance the recruitment and retention of the organisation. The growing digital agenda has, in many places, led cultural change in organisations, the result of which is often enabling staff to fit their work around their life in a way which has never been possible before. No more individual desk space, logging on in different locations, no time lost travelling to and from work locations or offices with empty desks contributing to high rental bills.

All of this, not only improves work/life balance for staff, but also improves productivity for the organisation. All of these things lead to a change in mind-set which enables both employers and employees to enjoy the mutual benefits of flexible working.

While it is obvious it’s not possible for all professions to benefit from flexible working, I think it is clear that, in those organisations, where some form of flexibility is viable, the benefits can be wide- reaching for all involved.

As I count down the days until baby number two arrives, I can relax in the knowledge that my job will be here when I’m ready to return to work and I feel very lucky to be in a role where flexible working is an option. I am in no doubt that, when the time comes, I can offer a level of productivity that will benefit my employer.

Maud Hollis is an assistant consultant at Solace In Business

Maud Hollis

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