Flexible working: How it can boost women in work

Employees know best what they need to do to achieve – empower them to structure their workload appropriately
Companies underestimate the productivity benefits of the practice.
The latest figures show that women are still under-represented in senior leadership positions, with only one in five FTSE 100 directorships and 7 per cent of executive directorships occupied by women. So it’s not surprising that we’ve seen a rise in the number of campaigns looking to boost women’s representation in leadership positions.
One of the reasons these campaigns are necessary is because employers continue to impose outdated working practices on employees. Too many firms still see allowing employees to work flexibly as an optional extra. Yet flexible working can encourage employees, particularly women juggling professional and family responsibilities, to stay on and progress into senior roles.
Research we conducted with the Centre for Economics and Business Research indicates that finance and professional services firms could unlock an additional 180 hours of time for every employee every year by introducing technology that helps them work as if they were in the office, no matter where they are. Our research is supported by the government’s impact assessment of its flexible working legislation, which estimated that flexible working generates a 5 per cent productivity boost for businesses. But what can companies do to reap these benefits?
First, flexible working has to be elevated to and sanctioned by the board. While it sounds like a simple decision, too many firms still only pay lip service to digital transformation. But with board support, you can get rid of archaic procedures. At O2, we asked our entire 2,500-strong head office workforce to work away from the office for the day to measure the impact. Although it wasn’t easy, the support of the board and senior managers throughout the business made it possible. Now, all of our offices are set up for flexible working.
The second step is driving a culture change. In many firms, productivity is measured by how many hours an employee spends in the office. Being the first employee to request to work flexibly can be daunting in such an environment, especially when this gives rise to notions of absenteeism. Senior employees need to take the lead by working flexibly, showing junior team members that taking advantage of smarter working will not jeopardise their careers.
We had to change our culture to remove the emphasis on office “face time”. I am glad we did. Once flexible working had become a reality, 88 per cent of employees reported that they were at least as productive working away from the office as they were on a normal day; 36 per cent claimed to be more productive.
Finally, equip employees with the necessary connectivity and security technology to be able to work wherever they are. 4G-enabled devices or cloud-based software and services mean you no longer need to be at your desk to get the information you need. It is only by empowering employees to structure their workload as they see fit that the full impact of flexible working can be felt.
Although it can seem like a leap of faith, at O2, absenteeism fell, the number of staff returning from maternity leave rose and everyone who worked flexibly reported that their work/life balance improved when we introduced a flexible way of working. Far from putting company performance at risk, flexible working’s positive effects bring benefits to employees and employers, making it part of a viable solution to female representation in senior positions.
Ben Dowd is business director at O2.

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