Why are companies still clinging to the 9 to 5?

By Peter van Verlaat, - Employee experienceFuture Workplace

Do we really need the 9-5 working day anymore? Or should we allow people to fit work around their lives in a way that suits them, giving them more time to focus on family or hobbies?

To that first question, many top employers would argue not.

Starbucks, for instance, lets employees work at least a portion of their hours remotely on the basis that all the technology accessible to them in the office is also available at home.

The UK government’s National Offender Management Service plans to upgrade from “pretty much a desk-based model with desktops and PCs to more mobile, flexible working,” according to IT director Ben Booth.

And Apple CEO Tim Cook has quite openly spoken out in favor of increased flexibility: “All our new hires work from home now,” he says. “It’s the way most modern businesses will go if they’re able to.”

But not everyone is suited to work from home or even outside of regular hours. In this third instalment of our #DigitalWorkplace series, I’m going to explore why flexible working is so rewarding for both businesses and employees, but also the genuine reasons some organizations are unable (or unwilling) to let go of the outdated 9-5 day at the office.

Why flexible working matters

The most valuable benefits of flexible working are twofold:

  1. Significant improvement in quality of life for employees
  2. Increased ability to attract and retain talent for employers

Let’s explore the first point: imagine a single parent, juggling work and childcare responsibilities. For them, it’s a life-changing prospect to be able to leave the office when school finishes, pick their child up and then continue working from home in the evening.

Or what about a busy professional who wants to stay healthy. Having flexibility in their day means they can take two hours out before lunch to head to the gym and then spend more time preparing food afterwards.

More generally it means people are no longer forced to live in or near cities just for work. They can move to greener, quieter areas where the environment is quieter and cleaner and the cost of living is lower.

All these small changes can have a massive impact on the overall quality of someone’s life, improving their work-life balance and ultimately making them less stressed and more productive.

And what about younger workers about to enter the jobs market? From various studies we already know they’re more likely than their baby-boomer counterparts to expect flexibility and work/life balance from their employer. But what about looking at it from the other point of view – the benefits that employer gets in return?

Offering flexibility, and having the technology to support it, effectively gives you access to any employee, anywhere. You can hire people who are the best fit for your business, rather than the ones who happen to live in commuting distance.

But it goes even further than that. As more companies begin to offer flexible working and more young people flood the market, those employers who are still playing catch-up will undoubtedly lose talented people to competitors.

And let’s not forget the various environmental issues associated with everyone travelling to the office every day. With fewer people commuting, there is going to be less pollution from cars, buses and trains.

The benefits of flexible working – both in terms of hours and location – are clear, and technology has evolved to the point where it’s easy to put in place. So why are some businesses still not buying into it?

Culture is key

As I mentioned above, there is no shortage of technology to support flexibility. But one significant barrier stems from company culture not supporting this new way of working.

In many cases, decisions on flexible working fall to managers’ discretion. But flexibility should instead be ingrained into wider company culture, something seen as a given rather than a ‘perk’ to be requested on a case-by-case basis.

Part of the problem comes from this latter point: flexible working is still seen by many as an employee benefit, when actually it enhances employee performance and therefore has a positive and far-reaching business impact.

Until this perception changes, those companies holding the former view are unlikely to achieve a truly flexible working culture.

And what about culture generally?

The lines between work and life are increasingly blurred, and some view this as a negative. The managing director of one marketing agency recently banned out-of-hours emails, while research earlier this year found flexible working, if not tempered by policies that encourage work/life balance, can actually damage your health.

If greater flexibility is seen as a way to make people work longer hours and be ‘always on’, employees may resist embracing it. Instead, it should be a way to give them greater freedom over how they use their time – the ability to work when they are most productive.

Location and sector have an influence

The extent to which companies offer flexible working – or whether it’s taken up by employees – can vary significantly from one country to the next.

While places such as the Netherlands and the Nordics region are quite far ahead, other countries in Southern Europe are perhaps more traditional in their thinking when it comes to working hours.

And in countries such as Japan, where long hours in the office are ingrained into the culture, it is naturally going to be much more difficult to sell the idea of greater flexibility.

Things vary significantly between industries and company sizes, too. Of course it’s easier for a tech start-up to offer flexible working and remote teams than it is for a large and established manufacturing firm to digitally transform and do the same.

The latter may be catching up with modern thinking, but many of those companies are still working with legacy systems that make adapting to flexible working more complex.

You’re always going to need face time

One thing we will never truly escape from, no matter how far technology progresses (at least in our lifetimes), is the need for at least some face-to-face interaction. There’s a certain level of trust you can only build through a physical meeting, and this applies to both internal discussions and those with customers and clients.

But even this doesn’t need to happen in a traditional office setting. With a little creative thinking and the right technology, almost anywhere could serve as a suitable meeting place.

One example is railway operators in the Netherlands, who have already started offering contractors space to work at stations.

Firms could follow this model and encourage remote workers to meet in public spaces, reducing the need for a central, static, workplace.

I appreciate I may be preaching to the converted here, but I’d be very interested to learn your views on flexible working, but also how your organization approaches it.

Do you, like me and many others, believe the 9-5 office job should be firmly confined to history books?

Stay tuned for the next instalment of our #DigitalWorkplace series, which is all about the promises and pitfalls of predictive analytics.

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