Following on from the article Key for change: Employment with a future mindset where I discussed the need for the change concerning flexible working arrangements, I trust that you are convinced that the time has come to make flexible working in South Africa the norm. You might even be willing to give it a try yet find yourself asking: where do I begin and how do I know it is going to work?
In this article, I will be sharing some ideas as to what I believe are essential success elements for flexible work arrangements. I trust this will help identify the ideal starting point for your organisation and in the process give you the courage to take the first step. I do not believe that you have to wait for the perfect circumstances, having everything in place, before starting the flexible working journey in your organisation. Knowing the critical elements required for successful flexible work arrangements and understanding the potential risks and challenges of flexible working are essential in preparing you for this change journey.
Types of flexible work conditions:
Before considering the requirements for successful implementation of flexible working arrangements, lets briefly re-visit what it is we are referring to when we refer to flexible work arrangements. Much is written about this What flexible working really means and Flexible Work Arrangements and I have no intention to get into the detail. Instead, I would like to categorise the myriad of flexible working conditions into two main categories, each with its spectrum of flexibility options.
Flexible Work Place
In Office to Remote Working
Flexible Work Hours
Traditional Monday to Friday, 8am to 5pm to No set day or time measure
These flexible work practices can be implemented in isolation or combination. The outcome depends on both the individual and the organisation’s appetite and ability to implement flexible working arrangements in a customised manner. The challenges, requirements and benefits associated with each arrangement will be unique, and although this article aims to address the general trends, it does not imply a lack of appreciation or understanding of the individual contexts faced by each party involved.
As an HR professional or business owner, your role is to identify the type and extent to which you can implement flexible working arrangements within your organisation. Then to consider what you need to manage the implementation.
Elements required for the successful implementation of flexible work arrangements
There are three main elements to be considered when determining successful flexible working arrangement implementation:
The job is the crucial starting point as it is the most fundamental element that will determine the type and extent to which flexible working arrangements can be implemented.
I would argue that every single position can absorb a degree of flexible working. Your role is therefore not to merely determine: flexible working – yes vs no, but rather to determine the type of flexible working (place/hours/combination) that could be considered based on the specifics of the job under consideration.
In considering this, it is essential to focus purely on the job and not to consider the incumbent or the organisational limitations. One way of doing this is to imagine you have the perfect incumbent and have the ideal organisational conditions.
Only once you have a clear indication as to the type and extent of the flexibility the job realistically allows, can you consider the next two components:
Most of you would agree that flexible working is not for everyone – this is not only true from the perspective of employers, but also for employees who have learnt this through experience: Why my super awesome flexible schedule completely backfired on my career.
Some of the critical elements to consider when reviewing the suitability for flexible working conditions are the individuals:
- Level of competence and skills required to perform the job
- Motivation and desire for engaging in flexible work practices
- Level of self-motivation to function effectively and competently from a remote workspace.
- Personality preference, values and preferred working style
- Extent and type of management required to perform effectively
- Competence concerning the unique skills and competencies needed to work flexibly.
- Current levels of trust between employee and employer
These are a few of the elements that will highlight some of the critical factors that might manifest as risks or opportunities when implementing flexible working arrangements.
The organisational elements needed for flexible working arrangements are extensive and reach across the full spectrum of organisational life. Future articles will unpack these in more detail -for now, I list a few:
- Technology (e.g. hardware, software, access to secure systems and email, knowledge sharing
- platforms, chat rooms, video conferencing facilities, time management systems)
- Job descriptions (presence vs output based)
- Performance management approach
- Recruitment and onboarding practices
- Training and development strategies
- Employment types and associated benefit structures
- HR policies and procedures
- Remuneration strategies
- Communication practices
- Leadership styles
- Organizational values and culture
In the past the whole technology challenges were a significant disabler to flexible working, now with these challenges primarily eliminated, you can now focus on the other organisational factors often referred to as “softer issues’, although sometimes harder to change.
Implementing for change:
In the graphic above one can locate the ideal ‘sweet spot’ where all three of the above elements considered overlap. This sweet spot is the perfect place where both the employer and the employee experience the multiple benefits of flexible working arrangements. It is where we would like to be and ideally aim for. The reality is that it is tough to achieve and if you wait to implement flexible working arrangements only in these conditions, you will not see change happen.
Realistically, we are called to start the implementation process in situations that are not perfect and that have elements of risk and challenges associated with them. In my view, implementation of flexible working arrangements is always possible and will most likely take place in the early stages of a change project in one of the two “possible” slots, being where the job overlaps with either the ideal individual’s characteristics or the best organisational factors.
Considering : I would argue that where the individual’s characteristics are aligned to the requirements for the said flexibility, implementing flexible work arrangements in this situation is possible despite the organisational factors, not all being in place. This is often the case where pilot projects are implemented with a single individual or small group who meet the individual characteristics and who then play a central role in identifying and shaping the changes required in the organisational context. Other examples where this might already be happening is when key individuals / critical talent are confronted with an unexpected change like relocation or health challenges and employers agree to implement flexible working arrangements in an attempt to retain the individual. Both of these are valuable first steps and if managed, measured and built on expertly, can become the foundation upon which large-scale flexible-working arrangements will roll out responsibly.
Considering : When organisational factors are in place, I believe that the flexible work arrangements can responsibly be implemented even for those who do not meet the full individual characteristics. In these cases, the organisational factors themselves would mitigate the risks presented by the gaps of the individual employees. This is often the case where well established flexible arrangements are in place (i.e. entirely remote working businesses) or is implemented across the board (i.e. an entire department moves to flexible working hours). An example of this is where an individual who is part of a team that is being moved to work entirely remotely, lacks self-motivation and consequently faces the risk of not performing without constant supervision. In such an instance:
- an appropriate performance management system,
- built on a clear job description with
- remuneration appropriately aligned to the deliverables of the job,
- under the leadership of a competent leader,
- is likely to mitigate the risk effectively, enabling the person to perform well in a complete remote working environment despite the gap in their disposition.
Taking the step to start implementing flexible work arrangements in South Africa or globally in less than perfect circumstances is possible but requires courage. Knowing and understanding the risks associated with flexible working will allow you to consciously and pro-actively navigate the challenges, mitigate the risks, manage the expectations of the stakeholders and implement improvements in the area where conditions are not yet ideal. Sharing learnings and capitalising on the learnings of others is valuable currency in this journey and can expedite your success if embraced as a collective. Alone, this seems overwhelming yet together we can make the difference!
Author: Rentia Landman – Industrial Psychologist | Professional Coach | HR Consultant | OD Specialist and owner of Landman Consulting