Flexible working

Along with transformation and disruption, flexible working is fast becoming a hot topic across a range of industries. Advancements in technology have changed what clients expect from us, and how we deliver it. Some businesses have already made the switch, whilst others are deciding whether to be fast followers or whether to wait and see how it plays out.

Working in the Financial Advisory Services team at PwC, I've made the most of our flexible working policy for a few years. So I thought I’d take some time to write an article about my experiences and what those thinking about making the switch should know. I'm not in human resources but here’s some information from someone on the ground, working flexibly every day.

I always thought it slightly interesting that most large corporates insisted that a good applicant for a graduate position would be one that participated in a wide range of extra-curricular activities at university, yet fostered a work culture that meant most staff couldn't continue with those activities when they signed on.

Many employers say that they allow staff to work flexibly. However, typically this flexibility has been limited and only offered to a few employees. An employer might negotiate with working mothers to build flexibility into their work schedules, whilst others may have had the ability to maintain certain commitments in specific situations. However, these privileges were not often publicly acknowledged and were reserved for only a few senior staff members.

Kayuy Patel, PwC Auckland

Kayur Patel
PwC – Auckland

True flexibility

However, that isn't true flexibility. True flexibility is being able to work from home when it works for you, or being able to come into the office at midday because you had a really good evening the night before. It’s also being in the office from 8.30am to 5pm if that's what you choose to do, and that's the point. True flexible working is the ability to choose how you work, when you work and where you work; not having to get permission to go home an hour early because you have to go to your in-law's house for dinner, or taking a longer lunch break because your car needs a WOF.

Whilst I believe flexible working can work for everyone, the nature of working flexibly does depend on the role a person has. For example, client facing staff may be required to be available during certain hours of the day, and a personal assistant may need to be available when their manager requires it. In these situations, everyone needs to communicate what flexibility looks like for each individual, and how they can work together to bring it to fruition.

In my experience, the flexible working policy at PwC demonstrates true flexibility. My first introduction to PwC's flexibility in practise was in my second week at the firm. It was 10am on a Tuesday, and a colleague of mine stood up from the desk he was at and said to no one in particular, "that's it, I'm off to play golf!" I was gobsmacked. He wasn't derided, no one made jokes about having a half day, and no one asked him when he would be back (if at all). In fact, the manager sitting close by just told him to have fun, and commented about an unfortunate situation a few weeks before (it involved a golf ball and a large body of water, but probably isn't too relevant here).

I work full time at PwC, but flex my hours every day. I start and finish work early so that I can beat the traffic and I start and leave even earlier on the days that I go to the temple in the afternoons. I also teach at the University of Auckland and on those days I'm out of the office during much of the business day. But wait, there's more! I've worked from Australia just because I wanted to, worked from home because I didn’t feel like coming into the office, and worked at the beach because I wanted to make the most of the summer. To fulfil my role, I work longer hours when my workload requires it, and have put systems in place to make sure I'm able to communicate and work with my colleagues from these different locations.

Because of all of this, I feel as though I'm well placed to discuss the benefits and some of the difficulties that come with flexible working, and now that we’ve got the latest group of graduates in the office, I've experienced this as both an employee and a manager.

Benefits for employees

Flexible working brings huge benefits for companies and its staff. At PwC, flexible working has resulted in happier staff, increased productivity, reduced turnover, a wider recruitment pool, and not to mention the increased reputation it's given our business. We're also stronger too. When the recent Wellington earthquakes hit, we found that many staff who weren’t affected directly but still unable to travel into the city quake zone were able to log in from home and keep working. They already had their laptops at home because they’d been working flexibly the day before, and could help ensure that the firm continued to do what it does best. Those who were affected took the time they needed to sort things out and came online if and when they were ready.

But what are the issues?

Of course there are potentials issues that need to be navigated. The way we work has remained relatively constant for hundreds of years and so there will obviously be unknowns as we suddenly turn it on its head.

Issues for employers

Managers might struggle with not having staff in the office every single day and may need to make adjustments in how they delegate and lead a team. Junior employees need to recognise this and help their managers with the transition. Change is not easy, especially if you've been doing things the same way for a long time.

The biggest fear that employers have with flexible working is that they will not properly be able to monitor what staff are doing at every point during the working day. Of course, many of you will know that technology renders this fear void, however the main question is not about how to monitor staff, but whether staff need to be monitored at all. Staff who are driven to succeed are not likely to reduce the amount or quality of the work they produce as a result of working flexibly. The need to produce results in order to progress in your role will always exist, and flexible working will simply broaden the ways they do that. Flexible working works best when employees are motivated.

Employees can also help by recognising that they have an obligation to build trust with their managers. If a manager knows that they can depend on you to get the job done, they'll be more comfortable with you changing your work schedule to suit your needs. Communication is also key. If I'm working from home, or starting and leaving early, I'll make sure it's communicated internally, and that my colleagues and clients can contact me during my working hours no matter where I am.

Of course, technology makes this easier. I've been able to work from home and still participate in video conference calls with colleagues across the country, Australia and with clients around the world.

Issues for employees

The mere presence of a policy does not automatically create a culture that fosters a flexible working environment. Even if a firm implements a flexible working policy, staff may still feel pressure to be seen at their desk and clocking in the hours, or may worry about the perception that they leave early during the day. The magnitude of this pressure will depend on the culture within the team. Leadership need to be aware of this, and actively instil a flexible working culture at every level, whilst junior staff need to be bold and pave the way for others to do the same.

The team that I work in have been great at trying to front foot these issues: from the Managing Partner at the top who proactively advocates for and highlights staff that are using flexible working and delivering on their projects, right down to junior staff who proudly announce that they're going home early, or just came in to start the day, so that others feel empowered to do the same. We're all assessed on our outputs, not on how long we sit at our desks.

Flexibility gives me the freedom to prioritise what I value in life. PwC has expertly combined this with a culture that promotes efficiency and quality, and this means that I am far happier, much more efficient and more motivated to succeed more than I have been before.

In the past, I've worked for employers that didn't have flexible working options, and I'm not sure that I could go back to that way of working again. Hopefully, employers will start to see that a culture that promotes choice whilst rewarding excellence is better for everyone long term.

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