Untie the flexible-working knot

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If flexible working is the answer to so many current business challenges, why do most organisations struggle to make it a reality? Companies which have sweated blood over policies and programmes admit that flexible work remains in the realm of "mums with kids", rarely succeeds above junior levels and causes childless employees to feel resentful.

Britons work the longest hours in Europe, they are dissatisfied with the balance between their work and their home lives, and are stressed- out and fed-up.Their constant cry is for more control over where and when they work. So why can't we make it happen?

Because flexible work options are designed to accommodate women with children. Such a system makes individuals compete for the benefit on the basis of their "deservedness". That isn't fair. And unfair systems in companies are not good for business.

Systems that give managers competing mandates are rarely successful. Is it my job to solve my staff's personal problems or is it to hit my revenue and customer satisfaction targets? What happens when the two conflict? What do I do when someone is entitled to a benefit that compromises what I am being measured on?

Flexible working also fails because we ask managers to play Solomon. If an employee wants to spend a day a week on his stamp collection is it a manager's job to decide that is not as validas his co-worker wanting to be at home with his kids?

There are worthy concepts behind the accommodation of parents, but when my colleague heads off to sort her childcare at 5.30pm while I am still working,they are cold comfort.

Pretending that businesses offer flexible working because they want to be philanthropic doesn't help. Business needs good people, the country needs women to be economically active. Yet our organisations still assume they have male workers with wives at home looking after the family. Long hours are how we demonstrate our commitment, and while that's the case, flexible working will always be seen as less valuable. We need to loosen up this model, but within the context of business results.

What will make flexible work a success? Make it voluntary, don't confuse it with flexible resourcing, talk about the business and how the work will be done differently as opposed to the reason for the request, give managers and staff a clear process for requesting a flexible-work arrangement and for making a decision. Give them the tools and the training to embrace the process. Ensure the system is transparent and consistent and finally, know why you are doing it as an organisation.

Broadening the base of those eligible for flexible working is critical but it is not a free-for-all. If a proposed arrangement is bad for business, and staff can't come up with a solution, then the answer (within legislative constraints) should be "no". If, at worst, it will have a neutral effect, managers and staff should be encouraged to give it a try.

Flexible-work arrangements are difficult because they challenge how we do things. This is also their power. Flexible-work options, driven by those most committed to making them work, can be a force for innovation and change. Some will fail, but there is a compelling body of evidence that the successful ones can improve recruitment, retention, productivity, absenteeism management and morale.

At the heart of a well-designed flexibility system is harnessing the energy and commitment of people who value more control over where and when they work. Giving managers and staff the tools and watching them shape the organisation into what they and the business need, can be a chief executive's dream rather than their worst nightmare.

Penny de Valk is with the work/life balance consultancy, Ceridian.