How Flexible Are Your Flexible Work Policies?

Modern information technology is opening up new ways of working, particularly challenging established notions of the importance of people working together in the same place and time. Since the 1990s, with waves of offshoring of business services, organizations have managed to get their heads slowly around the idea that people don’t necessarily need to be in the same room to be able to work with one another.

However, workplace flexibility agendas in many European businesses are driven either by a need to meet with statutory employment regulations or through a drive for cost efficiency. Often greater flexibility in the workforce is viewed as a lever to a reduction in office rental costs.

Accordingly, employers consider or implement working practices that free individuals from some of the routines of 9-to-5 or being present in a particular location, but the fundamentals of the work done, or the roles filled, remain steadfastly unchanged.

The demographics of our societies are undergoing dramatic shifts, and the patterns of how we work will by necessity need to shift in a much more profound fashion. In their book The 100-Year Life, Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott describe how traditionally we have regarded our lives in three distinct stages: education from birth until the point at which we enter the workforce; work which lasted for around 40 years, often following an established “career path”; and retirement which for previous generations would mostly be regarded as a reasonably short phase (if it existed at all).

From the Baby Boomer generation onwards, however, the length of our adult lives has stretched profoundly. Today’s children in developed economies, according to Gratton and Scott’s analysis, have a better than 50% chance of living to 100 years old. In that context, the economics of 40 years of working paying for 40 years of retirement merely fail to add up. We need to move away from the notion of education and then “a career”, and instead start to think about how work and education are threaded throughout our adult lives.

A business that is expanding through its acknowledgment of new emerging needs for the people it employs is the social enterprise Genius Within. The company works with organizations to help people with neuro-diverse conditions such as dyslexia fulfill their potential. It practices a “remote first” policy meaning that people are brought into the organization from across the whole of the United Kingdom, not being dependent on regular visits to a central office location.

For CEO Nancy Doyle, this isn’t an approach driven solely by the balance sheet. She told me “It’s not just remote for ease of cash flow, it’s about blending fulfilling, professional work with intense parenting years so that career progression doesn’t derail. Taking the commute out of the equation is simply the most cost-effective way to prioritize and manage time.”

However, having a broader scope towards flexibility means that Doyle can attract people from a much broader pool. “The other group I benefit from is ‘pyramid career’ people – highly trained and super experienced top people, who no longer want the hustle and bustle of full time and commuting.  They take a pay cut and a ‘backward’ step in exchange for satisfying work that gives them a chance to contribute without feeling micromanaged like they would if they stepped back into a permanent full-time role.”

A London, UK-based startup DuoMe is looking to tap further into that seam of people at transition points in their career when they want to look for different levels of commitment to work. The founders Eric Evans and Graham Joyce have built a platform that enables people to pair up for job shares. Their service allows people to find a job share partner and then approach their employer with a proposal, and also a SaaS platform that allows employers to manage job-sharing processes.

According to Evans, when employees go through some lifestyle event in the middle of a career which involves them being away from work for an extended period (most commonly the birth of a child), the chances of those staff leaving within a year of that event are unusually high. He also sees challenges towards the end of a person’s career when they want to start scaling back their work activity but organizations want to hold onto that person’s knowledge and experience for as long as possible (the phenomenon which Genius Within are already taking advantage).

Flexibility of this kind is a growing trend but involves a great deal of behavioral change within organizations to work effectively. Questions like “How do I do performance management?” or “How do I interview for people in a partnership?” put significant pressures onto line managers working in environments assume that one person does one job role.

That becomes particularly acute when many HR departments today have put less importance into building skills of job and organization design to focus instead on general operational effectiveness or current fashions like talent management or employer brand development. “There’s a real lack of standards around approaches to organization and job design. All of the big consulting firms have their own model,” said Evans.

Designing for job shares then becomes more difficult, as it’s rarely as simple as splitting a job in two with both people doing the same things. Evans sees that helping job-share partners to understand their strengths is vital. “You do have to think about who is going to do what in these partnerships. There’s a set of stuff that is generally shared – about 80% – but then there is about 10% that sits either side that is (an individual’s)  proficiency-based.”

However, some industries are far better at acknowledging working collaboratively at the most senior levels. Evans cites the creative industries where “it’s almost universal where you work as a pair because of the breadth of perspective that gives you.”

As organizations attempt to make themselves more attractive as employers, the complexities of understanding flexible working patterns that go far beyond working at home on a Friday will start to become clearer. There are obvious benefits to both employer and employee from this exploration, and broader demographic changes will force the hand for many businesses, but today those businesses that are pushing harder at the idea of 9 to 5 are still in the minority.


I am a writer and researcher who has held senior technology management roles in global media and digital businesses. I now provide insight and expertise to technology leaders across Europe.

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