Director of People and Infrastructure Sir Robert McAlpine
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Flexible working: how the unlikeliest of industries can embrace ‘true flex’

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Flexible working has the potential to be a real agent of post Covid-19 recovery – but businesses need to be willing to invest time and effort to make it work in the long-term.

1st Mar 2021
Director of People and Infrastructure Sir Robert McAlpine
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In many ways, the pandemic induced home working revolution has put flexible working on the map for many organisations. It forced employers to re-evaluate their outlook on flexibility, it prompted better accommodation of home working scenarios and encouraged businesses to take a more personalised approach to employee wellbeing.

'True flex’, is as much about a shift in attitude as it is putting in place physical flexible working policies. 

Whilst we can be grateful for the change in mentality, remote working during a pandemic is very different from true flexible working and the benefits it can bring. This is why we have a duty to explore sustainable flex options further, once the crisis is over. Flex needs to be available to everyone, no matter the sector, role or individual, and it must be deeply embedded into the company’s culture in order to inspire real, long-term change. We are on the cusp of true flexibility, but we are not there yet.

Flex for all, and all for flex

It is interesting to reflect on how, over time, we seem to have subconsciously developed a very narrow, boxed view of what flexible working should look like, who it should be for and which specific roles it can apply to. Perhaps amplified by the images conjured up by the media, a general perception of flexible working rarely includes construction workers on site, for instance.

Those who work in industries not traditionally associated with flex – like healthcare, social work and a range of other public sector disciplines – have just as much to benefit from flexible working as their office-based counterparts, and are equally deserving of the perks it offers, too. After all, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we should be doing everything we can to reward and support our key workers and their admirable work in caring for our ill, building our homes and keeping our neighbourhoods safe during the peaks of the crisis.

It is, of course, easy to understand why we have not achieved ‘flex for all’ yet. After all, devising a roadmap for rolling out flexible working options across a large workforce, often comprised of a broad spectrum of roles, is no small undertaking. It is not, however, an impossible feat – rather, it requires innovative thinking and an upfront (and often time-intensive) investment into new, sometimes daunting, pilot schemes. In the currently volatile economic climate, with business leaders’ attention firmly fixed on the bottom line, it is not difficult to see why achieving true flex, which goes beyond government-mandated home working, has slipped down the business agenda.

wellbeing hub link

Companies that do make the leap, however, are near guaranteed to reap the rewards. This isn’t simply conjecture; even eight years ago, research conducted by Stanford University revealed that employees are on average 13% more productive when working flexibly. The Forever Flex report published in November 2020, based on research conducted by Claremont during the first lockdown and commissioned by flexible working campaigner Mother Pukka and Sir Robert McAlpine, provided a number of first hand examples of how flexibility is linked with both productivity and happiness. One of the 31 companies surveyed, for example, said, “people are so much happier and relaxed as a result of flex and we’ve had additional benefits to the company that we weren’t expecting”.

This same research showed that whilst 72% of all employers wished to retain home working after the pandemic, just 66% of those in the construction sector intended to do so. With non-traditional flex industries like construction lagging behind the pack, we have arrived at an inflection point, and it is high time that we capitalised on this as an opportunity to switch up the flex conversation.  

Making the ‘true’ flex transition

Transitioning from ‘accidental flex’ – i.e. last April’s mass exodus from city-based offices to home working set-ups – to strategically designed and implemented ‘true flex’, is as much about a shift in attitude as it is putting in place physical flexible working policies. Especially for industries like construction, allowing yourself to start challenging preconceived ideas about the way in which we should work is the first, vital step towards developing the leadership mindset required for subsequent rollouts to succeed.

When it comes to applying theoretical flex ideas to real life working scenarios, running pilot initiatives on small sample groups of employees to gradually test and refine the policies, rather than implementing a sudden full-blown change, is highly advisable for long-term success. Not only does it give you some wiggle room if these initiatives ultimately prove incompatible with the business’ ways of working, it also grants employees at all levels of seniority a real stake in the process, ensuring that the ‘final product’ truly reflects what is important to them.

What’s more, especially for industries that don’t lend themselves easily to flexible working, a ‘one size fits all’ cannot be envisaged. No two businesses are identical, so it stands to reason that the policies and pilot initiatives trialed are therefore carefully tailored to suit your organisation’s culture, ways of working and objectives. It is a process of trial and error. This is the process that we are currently undergoing to map out our own flexible working blueprint at Sir Robert McAlpine: conducting surveys to find out what our employees want from flex, piloting flex on sites, and leading sector-wide, collaborative roundtables to discuss how our industry can achieve ‘true flex’. Though we haven’t got all the solutions yet, we are proudly committed to moving into this direction and want to encourage HRs in other ‘non-traditional’ flex industries to follow suit.

Build back better

With more prosperous times hopefully on the horizon for businesses, flexible working can be a real agent of the post Covid-19 recovery. It is certain that true flexible working for all would contribute to better work/life balance and therefore to a happier workforce. It would allow a greater diversity of people to get the jobs that suit their way of life, thus addressing the skills gap, creating more inclusive workplaces and reducing the gender pay gap. More importantly, it would significantly contribute to boost productivity in every sector and help us to build back better.  

Interested in this topic? Read Where are we today with remote working?

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