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I used to work for a company whose standard (but optional) practice was to take half an hour for lunch each day (as opposed to the full hour we were entitled to), meaning on Fridays we were able to leave at 2pm instead of 5.30pm. Recently I came across some research showing Friday to be the day on which people admit to wasting the most time at work and that the hours of 3pm-5pm are the worst time of day for this. I couldn’t help thinking that my old employer was in fact on to something. I’m sure many would rather take shorter lunch breaks if it meant leaving earlier on a Friday, but does flexible working really bring greater productivity, or is it just an invitation for people to take advantage?
An interesting study carried out by researchers at Stanford University on CTrip (China’s largest travel agency) sheds some light. CTrip embarked on a 9 month campaign to establish whether working from home would impact negatively on the productivity levels of their call-centre workers. What they found was that the performance of home workers actually went up dramatically, by 13% over the nine months. 9% of this was due to the number of minutes worked, whilst the remaining 4% came from the increase in the number of calls they took. They also found that attrition actually fell by a staggering 50% amongst the home workers, who also reported higher job satisfaction.
So if home workers put in more hours than office workers and are more productive in those hours, what’s stopping all leaders from making the leap? For many it is a matter of trust, or more specifically a lack of it. Making the move towards a more flexible way of working requires a real leap of faith. But flexible working handled correctly empowers people, it builds trust within teams, heightens accountability and leaves people happier and more engaged. The benefits extend beyond the individual. The organisation sees an increase in productivity, cost savings on office overheads, a more attractive benefits package to offer when recruiting and a strengthened CSR Policy (reducing the number of vehicles on the road, easing traffic congestion and reducing carbon footprint).
The last 10 years has seen a real cultural shift towards establishing a greater work/life balance for employees. It’s the way things are heading and employers need to get on board or risk losing their best talent. Of course there are some situations where flexibility is difficult; where phones have to be manned over a certain time period for example. In these situations, employers and leaders must look for other ways to offer flexibility.
Perhaps the key point to take from the research on home working is highlighted in a 2011 study by LSE’s Alexandra Beauregard, which found that the happiest workers of all are those that are able to work both at home and in the office. The CTrip study supports this, with 50% of the home workers opting to go back to office-based working at the end of the trial period. And the reason for this? Home workers can feel isolated.
For individuals working from home or ‘on the road’, regular coaching is essential to their success. Leaders need to establish coaching relationships that not only provide a level of human contact and allow them to monitor possible feelings of isolation, but critically, to make people feel part of the team. Effective coaching, along with regular team meetings combats feelings of isolation; it shows people that they are valued and essential to the success of the team.