Managing flexible working

Managers need to be encouraged to see flexible working as giving something to the company rather than just to the employee, say researchers. Most polls show a majority of employees want more flexibility.

Female manager


Everyone’s talking about it. Flexible working is never far from the headlines. Most polls show a majority of employees want more flexibility and, with modern technology, it is becoming ever easier to work remotely. So what are the barriers?

One that many advocates of flexible working bring up is managers’ attitudes. Katie Slater, founding Director of career management company A Brave New World, says “managers tend to be really focussed on the bottom line (profits etc) which is absolutely fine. However, we have found from our research that in particular mums and dads returning to work requiring flexibility are not as valued as others. Perception is a huge issue and this accompanied by lack of confidence in a lot of cases from the returnee can add to the frustration of both sides.”

Employer benefit

Recent research from the Henley School of Management found that part of the problem behind some managers’ negative attitudes is that flexible working is still sold as an employee benefit rather than something that is profitable for companies, for instance, in terms of retaining skilled staff or providing customers with a 24-hour service.

Its Tomorrow’s Leaders project also found many managers felt neither they nor their staff had had sufficient training in how to work flexibly or manage flexible working. IT and communications was a particular problem. Only 22% said their companies had invested heavily in remote working technology. However, many companies have the infrastructure to support remote working. The problem was that they weren’t using it: 50% of managers did not think they were using the networking technology they had effectively.

The project also examined the need for a new type of management focused on leadership skills rather than the traditional overseeing role managers have taken in the past. Such radical change can create insecurity and defensiveness.

Adapting to the 21st century

The report concludes that managers and companies have still to adapt to the working needs of the 21st century and that many are lagging behind. “It is now possible for the time and place of work to be fitted around an individual’s personal life rather than the other way around, but this reality has yet to reach most managers,” it says.

Management is still built on presenteeism and long hours are seen as evidence that a person is working effectively. “We reward input not output,” it says. “One of the major early challenges of the 21st century is therefore to improve the management of output by measuring and rewarding productivity.”


For Katie Slater, the solution is training. Her company runs an innovative programme that targets both the manager and the returnee. Its Integration Training Programmes include “open discussion with managers on their perceptions”. “We work with the returnee to get focus on their own career motivators, values and beliefs so that they not only will understand what kind of role they want to return to but also the culture that best matches their needs,” says Slater.

“We also encourage them to understand that they have to be realistic about their own expectations on returning to work – it’s a two-way process after all. We find that once all of this is completed the manager has understood the value of flexibility and the benefits to the organisation. The retention of the returnee is optimised.”

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