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HR: A Flexible Working Approach Can Provide a Business Edge


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Flexible working is being embraced by organisations globally. In South Africa, companies are also increasingly adopting this approach, but cautiously. While there strategic benefits for businesses that support flexible working, it is not appropriate for all businesses, roles or activities. A balance needs to be struck between what workers want and what the business needs or aims to achieve says Phillip Gregory, Senior Regional Executive, Johnson Controls Global WorkPlace Solutions

The workforce is changing. So is the way we work and conduct business. With clear differences in the needs and structure of individual businesses and the roles of their workers, there is no one style of work that fits all. Flexible working is a strategy that will need to be driven by the needs of the business. There are certainly benefits:

· Cost savings: According to research conducted by Johnson Controls, of 531 buildings in 41 countries only 49 per cent of office space and just 37 per cent of meeting rooms are utilised. The wastage is significant. Agile businesses that recognise work as a resource rather than a place you go to are already making savings by adopting flexible working practices. A recent example is of a global bank which saved £2m annually by transforming 20 percent of its 100 000 workstation estate.

· Increased productivity and performance: It’s not just about cost savings. By creating an environment where employees have higher levels of satisfaction and motivation, productivity also increases, which has a positive impact on the bottom line. Research shows that flexible workers are 12 percent more productive and lose fewer days to sickness.

· Improved talent acquisition: To continue to attract, retain and develop talent, businesses need to understand what drives their workforce. Modern knowledge workers are increasingly expecting more when it comes to balancing work and family life. Most rank workplace and work style as critical in their choice of employer. Businesses who have yet to accept this may risk losing out on the war for talent.

What are some of the operational downsides and practical challenges to flexible working?

There are potential operational pitfalls for organisations wishing to take advantage of new working patterns. Flexible working can be difficult to implement in some situations, for example in a research and development context where the user of expensive equipment is needed. Remote workforces can also feel disconnected from the business, eroding team morale. Flexible working may raise security and data protection issues.

How should organisations prepare for the changes needed to implement flexible working?

Leadership teams must develop an approach to flexible working that supports optimal business operations. Understanding people’s roles, time commitment, interaction and the current prevailing working practices should also help business to agree on a flexible working approach. During the implementation phase, pragmatic workplace strategies, integrated technologies and project management skills will minimise any business downtime while implementing lasting change.

The questions to ask are:

· What are my business goals?

· What type of environment, workforce and the culture do leadership teams wish to create?

· How can the workplace and working practices support this?

Flexible working should not be seen in isolation but as one of a number of tools to help achieve business objectives. There should also be linkage between global and local office locations, design, and the expectations around policies for remote versus office-based working.

Other considerations include:

User-centricity – The workforce is changing and a balance needs to be struck between what businesses need and what workers want. Research has shown that there is a high correlation between employee engagement and customer satisfaction. Inevitably, compromises will need to be made. It is important, therefore, for businesses to engage their people, capture their views and listen to their concerns about flexible working. They must feel comfortable with the technology and with its delivery mechanisms for the practice to thrive.

Technology – Many professionals now find themselves spending more than 50 per cent of their working hours communicating and collaborating using technology. Collaboration tools and connectivity are allowing greater flexibility for diverse and geographically challenged teams. Video conferencing (VC) and historically expensive VC rooms are being replaced by desk-based, individual video connections that visually connect staff more readily without the need for a dedicated space. Many employees are also, to differing extents, embracing bring your own device (BYOD) policies, using personally owned mobile devices to access privileged company resources such as databases.

Data collection – An estimated 90 per cent of the data that exists today is less than two years old. Many organisations gather “Big Data”, but the challenge is to make sense of it and use it to deliver business outcomes in line with flexible working strategies. Real-time data collection, through systems such as our own Workplace Motion analytics platform, is helping business leaders to build a case for workplace change by decoding building occupancy rates and space utilisation.

What could the flexible workplace of the future offer?

With practical strategies in place that meet business and staff needs, the workplace of the future is likely to offer a more enriched working experience. They may also host a variety of office environments that support different business outcomes, such as:

· Strengthened corporate identity – People appreciate attractive and inspiring environments, and our research shows there is a clear connection between welfare/well-being and creativity and efficiency.

· Natural flexibility – This will become embedded within organisations, allowing not only flexibility in working style, but also affording the corporate real estate function flexibility in its real estate strategy. The result will be a workplace that allows for contraction and expansion in demand and headcount over time.

· A positive impact on costs – The flexible workplace by its very nature will drive space savings and therefore a reduction in energy usage and real-estate costs.

· Effective use of Big Data – This will be instrumental in enabling businesses to consider people, equipment and the operational environment in a more strategic, holistic and predictive way.

· Creative connected people – Creativity often occurs in random discussions with people who have different experiences. Creating a workplace that is designed for spontaneous meetings is a great way to enhance the creative climate. Relationships between employees are likely to strengthen as new workplace concepts (such as activity-based working and campus designs) create new conversations and encourage the exchange of ideas.

· Greater work-life balance – If your focus is on the work getting done, rather than where it gets done, the result is often a better work-life balance for staff.

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