What's Your Flexible Working Tipping Point?

08/30/2013 04:12 pm ET | Updated Nov 19, 2013

With the advent of improved technology and an increasingly mobile workforce, the option to work where you need to be is becoming accepted, if not a necessity, for many organizations.

The benefits of flexible working are well documented: reduced costs, higher productivity and increased employee morale and motivation, to name a few. But how good are we at measuring and understanding the true value of flexible working in our organization, weighed against the traditional view of the workplace and poor implementation?

As a recently published study by the think-tank RSA and Vodafone UK finds, the benefits of flexible working are not endless, and vary across different organizations and sectors. A key finding is that each organization has its own 'tipping point', where flexible working delivers the optimum cost, productivity and motivational benefits.

The arrival of an ultrafast 4G network, underpinned by a seamlessly integrated fixed line infrastructure, means the technology available to support flexible working has never been better. And, encouragingly, the benefits of flexible working among employees and employers are now well known and understood:

  • At a national level, the study estimates, flexible working could deliver the UK economy a £8.1 billion boost through cost reductions and productivity gains
  • For organizations, the benefits include improvements in innovation, productivity, cost-efficiency, skills utilisation and staff motivation
  • For individuals, the benefits include: time and cost savings; enhanced productivity, innovation and skill utilisation; improved work-life balance; and enhanced psychological and physical wellbeing

However, what is abundantly clear from the study is that it is just as important for organizations to understand that a 'one -size-fits-all' approach are unlikely to succeed and any implementation must be based on mutual trust and gain.

The variation in adoption patterns apparent from the report -- based on a national survey of 2,828 employees and employers -- shows that the idea of 'flexibility' varies greatly between individuals, organizations and sectors. Policies which have been developed with a specific organization or individual in mind through a partnership approach are much more likely to succeed than a 'one-size-fits-all' approach.

Beyond a certain point, a badly managed flexible working practice can start to become counterproductive. That tipping point is likely to be organization or context-specific.
Knowing where this tipping point exists is vital. Designing policies and practices that fit requires a degree of self-knowledge and a deep understanding of the operating environment. Whether flexible working becomes a net benefit or not depends largely on whether it is applied within a progressive culture of trust and collective commitment, or whether it operates as part of a more reactive, 'command and control' culture in which employees are forced to subvert and resist the rules to get the best deal for themselves.

The up-shot is that organizations need to focus their attention on the quality of output rather than the proximity of their workforce. When flexible working is adopted as part of a proactive, reciprocal partnership between employer and employee -- encompassing both individual and organizational goals -- it drives innovation, performance and productivity, along with job satisfaction, motivation and well-being. If optimised more widely, better ways of working could unlock billions of pounds-worth of social and economic value.