Why inflexible bosses are stifling business

18 Nov

Working flexibly gives employees the freedom to be productive. (pic credit: istockphoto/alexsl)

For any of you stuck at your desk on a Friday evening wondering when you’ll ever be able to go home, then you’re probably among the 40% of employees who feels pressured into ‘presenteeism’ to prove your commitment to your job.

A survey of 2000 office employees by mobile phone company O2 found that line managers prevent their staff working flexibly, even though staff believe they’d be more productive if they didn’t have to work under their watchful eye of their inflexible bosses.

Yes, there’s a recession on. Yes, employees need to be productive because there’s no room for passengers in any business. And yes, managers may fear that people may take advantage and use ‘working from home’ as an excuse to laze around all day. But surely employers can’t think that implicitly or explicitly expecting their employees to be tied to their desks is going to improve productivity – because it certainly isn’t going to improve staff engagement.

O2 spokesman David Plumb said: “Employees spending more time at their desks because they believe they have to is not going to contribute to driving UK business forward.” While O2 clearly has a commercial interest in people working remotely, Mr Plumb does indeed have a point.

I’ve seen it from both sides, as a manager and as an employee. As the latter, I remember meeting all my deadlines and yet having to sit at my desk not being very productive at all until other key people deemed it appropriate to call it a night. The boss was an insecure micro-manager who would compete with her deputies to prove who had worked the hardest that day. At times, it felt like a competition to see how many emails she could send late at night, at weekends, and even when she was on holiday. She encouraged this behaviour in her staff, who also felt incapable of having proper time off for fear she would consider them slackers. The atmosphere in the office was uptight, and the behaviours were passive-aggressive. Not an ideal environment for driving business forward.

As a manager, my team had work to be done by deadlines. I didn’t mind how they reached their deadlines, only that they did quality, targeted, professional work. I needed to see them for meetings, functions, events, and their movements went in an office diary. One of my team always had to rush home when one of her three young children was sick – but she made up the time and the work, and was a loyal, brilliant worker.

The difference between the two scenarios can be summed up in one word: trust. You need to have trust to manage flexible working in any office environment. Without flexibility, it feels anachronistic in a 21st century workplace. OK, so in some sectors such as banking, hospitality, retail, you need to have more structure in the scheduling of workers because they are customer facing, and opening hours dictate to some extent what hours are appropriate.

But separate surveys show that flexible working does make good business sense. Working Families says flexible working offered as a benefit helps employers attract more talented staff, who are happier and subsequently more productive. Research and policy manager Jonathan Swan said flexible working was good for wellbeing because it allowed a healthier work-life balance.

Not only that, but it could save money – to the tune of £15bn a year for the public sector, according to figures quoted in HR Magazine.

Separately, a survey from Office Angels predicts that we won’t have nine-to-five working in 25 years’ time as businesses adopt flexible working practices. Personally, I think it will happen much sooner than that.  A new government and industry consortium – perhaps unsurprisingly backed by technology and mobile phone companies Microsoft and Vodafone – is looking into helping British employers understand the benefits of providing flexible working environments. The Anywhere Working consortium, launched by transport minister Norman Baker, will explain the productivity and efficiency savings, the reduced carbon footprint – not to mention the practical implications of working from home during the Olympics period in London in 2012.

I look forward to seeing what impact Anywhere Working has, and whether it will open the eyes of old-fashioned managers into a more enlightened way of working.

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