The six worst flexible working myths: debunked

Why it’s high time you smelt the coffee and woke up to the flexible working reality

Let’s play a little word association game – no judgement. What are the first things that come to mind when you think about “flexible working”?

A bad excuse for beaches? Barbecues? Or better yet beach barbecues? A bonkers, trendy, media/arts phase that allows your employees to run riot, while they sap millions from your firm and billions out of our economy?

Well, if you’re still choosing to follow the whole when-the-cats-away-the-mice-will-play philosophy – you’re just plain wrong. And potentially on the wrong side of the law, which gives all employees the right to ask to work flexibly.

Don’t worry though, the no judgement pledge still holds - for it’s likely that you have fallen victim to some prominent myths about flexible working, which we fully intend to dispel below in order for you to see the error of your ways.

Because flexible working can, in fact, be an innovative, in-tune way of maximising the work/life balance of your staff, and bolstering your company’s balance sheet.

MYTH #1: My workers will be less productive

flexible working beach

Actually, giving workers the ability to choose when and where they work helps them to become more, not less productive.

Even before most of us had a smartphone, Skype calls, and super-fast broadband, flexible working was able to deliver significant jumps in productivity. A 2007 trial study by BT, for instance, found that productivity went up by 54% once workers switched to flexible ways.

And don’t dare think that this productivity boost has gone away. In 2012, O2 commissioned the largest flexible working study the UK had ever seen and found that 36% of all participants were more productive when working from home than from the office. Overall productivity jumped by 78%, the report said.

In a similarly-sized study published just this week, workspace provider Regus found that more than half of 3,000 staff surveyed worked better at home. This backs previous research by the company which found that 70% of managers noted an increase in productivity after introducing flexi-working.

MYTH #2: Digital networks will be less secure

Ok. I will hand it to you here. Mobile phones, tablets, that thing that tries to be a laptop/tablet hybrid - all that stuff is pretty damn scary if you’re an employer. As it should be. In January a study found that half of secure IT networks were compromised by employees using personal devices. Half. I mean that is a scary-ass statistic right there.

But while that may have left you quivering, there isn’t all that much you can do about it. People will keep bringing in their smartphones, which will only keep getting smarter. Yes, you can try and ban it, but like every schoolteacher since Nokia brought out the dreaded Snake game in 1999 – YOU WILL FAIL.

So, the only way to be smart about this is to face the threat and adopt a real, safe, mobile solution. Start by reading our feature on developing a bring your own device (BYOD) policy for staff who use their own devices for work.

Figure out what works for you. There are plenty of things you can do to create a basic infrastructure or policy that works for you inside the office, and for your employees out of the office. Definition of two birds, one stone.

MYTH #3: My workers will use it as an excuse to skive off

Yes, sure. There is no guarantee that if your employees are out of the office, they will not be taking life a little easier. But, then again, there is no guarantee that they would be taking life all that much more seriously if they were in the office either. That is why we have Facebook, Gmail, Reddit, Twitter, and let’s not even mention the mind vortex that is the The Daily Mail.

Yet for all the possible distractions, what the facts seem to show is that on the whole, employees that are allowed more flexibility actually do more work and take fewer days off.

The Advanced Workplace Association has repeatedly found that employees with more flexibility tend to have higher attendance rates. Similarly, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) last year found that more choice “reduces absence and boosts productivity”.

When one considers that across Europe, more than 120 million sick days a year are estimated to be taken for personal reasons – like having to take care of a loved one - rather than for an actual illness, the benefits of allowing room to manoeuvre become clear.

MYTH #4: I’m too small!

You are never too small

Oh don’t be such a baby. There is no such thing as too small when it comes to flexible working. If anything, as a small business you should be more nimble and agile to accommodate your employees.

While you may be whimpering and worried that you will be left squeezed out by the big guys, 79% of micro-businesses (those with less than 10 employees) said they have never turned down a request for flexible working in a government-commissioned study carried out last year by CIPD. Similarly 65% of small businesses and 47% of medium-sized businesses claimed they have also never said no.

More than 90% of small businesses and 85% of micro-sized businesses reported offering some kind of flexible working in the same study. This obviously means that if you’re not getting involved on some level, you’re being left behind.

Indeed, small businesses in one key respect have the most to gain from flexibly working, because they are the hardest hit when employees decide to leave. Handy, then, that flexible working has been cited as a key pull factor when recruiting for new staff and is also widely cited by staff as key reason to stay at their present company.

MYTH #5: I’m too large!

You're never too big! Elephant takes over Regent Street

Really?! Really?! You’re a titan of industry, a cheerleader for capitalism, a widely-worshipped “job-creator” and you’re afraid of a little flexible working? Honestly.

The only large organisations that have been publicly outright hostile to the idea seem to be public sector ones. So if you want to make your company look more like a bureaucracy backroom, go right on ahead. Alternatively, you can man up and decide to lead the way in making the lives of your workers happier and your shareholders wealthier.

According to the CIPD, all large employers are now offering flexible working to some employees. However, the degree and ways in which they do so varies drastically - which is a shame for a multitude of reasons.

Firstly, big businesses tend to benefit the most in terms of space-related savings, and should be able to shave off as much as 40% on their office bills by letting staff work remotely.

Secondly, big business is under the most scrutiny to provide energy efficiency and cut down on CO2 emissions. This is easily achieved if your employees commute or drive to work less frequently. This on average saves 1.16 tonnes of carbon dioxide, per person annually. Oh and the savings continue once at work too. In its landmark 2012 study O2 found that electricity consumption decreased by 12%, while water usage fell by 53%, following a switch to letting staff work away from the office.

Thirdly, you really should stop being selfish and costing us all money. It has been estimated that British business could be saving £34bn by adopting flexible working. That’s exactly the size of the budgetary hole that Osborne found himself having to plug in 2010 in the so-called “emergency Budget.” Enough said.

MYTH #6: Communication will decrease

This is one of the most widely cited reasons for not letting employees work more from home, but it is just as big a myth as the rest of them. Promise.

When trying to break the ground for flexible working in 2007 (then very much an “excuse me sir, but have you been partaking” kind of a concept), BT still found that communication among colleagues and clients improved markedly, rising by 79% and 67% respectively. In fact, the company deemed communication increases as one of the biggest benefits of the working model.

A more flexible model can allow you to spend more time with clients and cut time spent on travel to and from venues, so you can spend more time tuned in and switched on, rather than roughing it on the tube and praying no one nicks your beloved smartphone.

Plus, communication is getting easier all the time. According to a survey of over 1,000 CIOs in 11 countries carried out last year, 2013 was predicted to see a 249% increase in the number of personal devices used to support flexible working.

And if that rapid transformation and technology isn’t enough to convince you that flexible working is not just an elaborate rouse to let your employees lounge around on the sofa all day watching TV, then there is no hope for you at all.

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