Could adopting flexible working drive business growth?

Date: 04-11-2016

Tagged as: GrowthSustainabilityLeadershipProductivity


Could flexible working boost productivity and business growth? As the UK reaches a ‘tipping point’ in adopting workforce flexibility, we examine the benefits for British business.

About the author

Dr Cathy Garner is Director of The Work Foundation, Lancaster University. The Work Foundation leads thinking on and develops ideas and knowledge about successful workplaces. She also holds a number of non-executive and trustee based positions both in the UK and internationally, including positions in the social housing, management consultancy and health research sectors.

The Government-sponsored push to tackle the UK’s productivity gap is inspired by a desire to boost the economy and help businesses achieve growth through doing more with less. Increased productivity at its very heart means that businesses can produce greater outputs for the same level of input – improving their cost-benefit ratio, efficiency, profitability and fuelling growth.

Pursuing growth

With UK productivity 19 per cent below the average for the rest of the G7 in 20151, there’s lots for businesses to go at in terms of narrowing the gap, boosting productivity and pursuing an agenda focused on growth. Could flexible working help them achieve that?

“There’s a lot of debate around whether flexible working has a positive or negative impact on growth and productivity,” says Dr Cathy Garner, Director of The Work Foundation and author of ‘Working Anywhere: a winning formula for good work?’, a report into the benefits of changing working patterns.

“From the evidence we gathered during the course of our research, it is clear that those who work more flexibly get more done.”

“From the evidence we gathered during the course of our research, it is clear that those who work more flexibly get more done.”

Positive business impact

The report contains examples of how flexible working has impacted businesses across both the public and private sector in terms of cost reduction, staff retention and client outcomes, factors that invariably affect growth. A particularly striking example is that of The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass). They introduced a remote working system, which has seen 94 per cent of staff working remotely once a month. The results were remarkable.

It was calculated that the move saved Cafcass 105,000 hours of admin time, with sickness rates decreasing by 55 per cent over a four-year period, reducing the cost of absences from £3.2 million to £1.8 million. Their clients benefited as well, with Cafcass reporting improved service delivery timescales for cases2.

A further example highlighted in the report is BT. The company has embraced flexibility across its workforce, with over 70,000 flexible workers ranging from senior managers to contact centre staff. Sir Christopher Bland, Chairman of BT has extolled the virtues of flexible working, joining the dots between flexibility, efficiency and growth and reflecting that flexible working has led to both cost savings and increased productivity.

Engaging employees in your growth mission

This link between flexibility and employee engagement is, according to Dr Garner, the key to enhanced productivity and business growth.

“In a knowledge or service-based economy such as the UK, the way businesses treat their employees has a huge impact on their success and, by definition, their potential for growth. Trusting your employees to manage the responsibilities of work and the complexity of their lives underpins a sense of empowerment. It locks them in to your mission and helps them feel valued in terms of contributing to the business.”

Indeed, if we look at many of the UK’s most successful businesses (in growth and profitability terms), such as Virgin or the John Lewis Partnership, their values are firmly focused on employee engagement to drive excellence in customer service, which forms the foundation of their success.

A tipping point for UK business

According to Dr Garner’s report, the UK is approaching a ‘tipping point’, where the right to request and expect flexible working becomes the norm. However, not every business is moving in the same direction. Whilst for some, flexibility is clearly not crucial for productivity gains, for example, those with automated production lines, for others, flexibility remains consummate with under-performance.

“The main barrier we come across is culture,” says Dr Garner. “Businesses where people are viewed as resources or commodities are where presenteeism remains rife. However, as we reach this tipping point and the evidence starts to build, we’re seeing a move to measuring performance on achievement rather than physical presence, with 77 per cent of business leaders surveyed in a YouGov poll stating that they ‘measure success by results rather than time spent in the office’3. That’s where the future lies.”

"Businesses serious about pursuing growth must adapt and be more agile in their thinking."


What’s driving the flexibility trend?

Dr Garner highlights a number of factors creating a push and pull effect on the adoption of flexible working:

  1. Availability – in a 24/7 society, businesses need employees available to service the needs of customers.
  2. The global economy – interaction across different time zones requires greater flexibility.
  3. Technology – acts as both an enabler of the trend and a driver fuelling the expectations of the digital, always-on generation.
  4. Costs – a re-examination of costs has led to further innovation in work methods and increased flexibility.
  5. Millennials – this generation has a different attitude to work, expecting greater flexibility and the ability to work anywhere.
  6. Individual pressures – challenges such as care responsibilities mean that people are demanding greater flexibility.
  7. An ageing workforce – retaining the skills and knowledge of older workers can be helped by a more flexible approach.
  8. Legislation – 2014 saw the right for employees to request flexible working in certain conditions enshrined in UK law.

The need for agile thinking

Whilst warning against the complete derogation of responsibility in favour of flexibility (the so-called ‘uberisation’ of a workforce), Dr Garner argues that, by 2020 almost 70 per cent of businesses will have a policy on flexible working.

“We live in a changing world, with a changing workforce. Businesses serious about pursuing growth must adapt and be more agile in their thinking. The most successful implementation of flexibility comes when the needs and goals of employer and employee are aligned. A positive execution will inevitably improve job satisfaction and productivity and help drive growth.”


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