Whatever you call it, and however you define it for your organisation, it looks like flexible working is here to stay, at least for many white-collar workers.
It’s clear from survey after survey, as well as anecdotal feedback, that employees like – *really like* – having more choice and control over their lives. If there is one good thing to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the accelerated arrival of more flexible working options for millions of administrative, office, contact centre and other knowledge workers.
If your business is anything like ours, you probably had most of your employees based in the office prior to March 2020. We all know what happened after that. To keep everything running for our clients, we had to migrate thousands of people to work from home setups in a very short space of time. It was an incredibly steep learning curve, but it has paid huge dividends.
We believe flexible working can help employers compete more effectively in today’s competitive job market, and also vastly improve their employees’ lives.
What flexible working means for us
For us, flexible working encompasses a whole range of different working models. It’s about getting the right balance between in-office and at-home or remote working, which can mean distributed work in any number of locations.
Back in the early days of the pandemic, this type of setup was required for business continuity. Today, it is our default operating model, and we design our teams and business practices around it.
For our clients, unanswered calls or a drop in service levels if one of our contact centres or teams goes offline can be disastrous. It’s the same for most businesses. Going dark means lost orders, lower satisfaction rates, and ultimately lost customers.
As an operation that needs to be open 24/7, business continuity is critical. Prior to 2020 we relied on fluctuations between our own network of onshore and offshore contact centres. While this was a robust plan, and one that is still relied upon by operations that can’t utilise at-home or remote working, the addition of our work from home model has added a whole new layer of security and reliability.
Creating pandemic-proof jobs
This assurance of ongoing operations also applies to our staff giving them confidence. In a time of tremendous uncertainty, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, we are able to offer the certainty of ongoing employment. These pandemic-proof jobs, as we call them, are very attractive to both our existing employees and potential candidates, particularly those who have experienced the disruption in the tourism, hospitality and retail industries first-hand.
Flexibility makes an employer of choice
While there is a huge group of people who have taken the opportunity in the last two years to break free from the office and work remotely, there is a core cohort of people who prefer to be around colleagues but probably feel they don’t need that level of physical proximity and support 5 days a week. Allowing people to pick and choose what works for them is rewarding for both employer and employee.
Those that are choosing to change jobs are doing so because they want a higher salary, greater job satisfaction, or they are looking for a position that better matches their lifestyle choices
“I remember having this conversation early on during the pandemic with one of our team members in Brisbane. He said, although dealing with the pandemic has been really hard, one of the best things that happened was that by working from home, he’d been able to see his young son grow up and he wouldn’t have been able to experience that if the pandemic hasn’t shifted the way how work gets done. It’s these moments that really express the true value of offering hybrid and flexible work arrangements for our people.”
Zahra Peggs, TSA Group’s Group Executive of People & Corporate Affairs
Employers that offer the kinds of flexible working benefits that today’s jobseekers are looking for give themselves an advantage in this competitive job market, and get the pick of the available talent. They will also be able to attract people who aren’t looking to switch jobs. This passive candidate market, where employers must actively woo workers away from other companies, is often where the best talent is to be found.
Additionally, organisations looking to recruit remote or hybrid workers have another considerable advantage over those rigidly recruiting for office-based staff. Whereas the latter have to stick to candidates who live (or want to live) within an hour or so’s commute to the office, organisations that embrace flexible working can fish in a much less geographically restricted talent pool.
Looking outside traditional recruitment catchment areas opens an organisation up to a more diverse range of skills, knowledge, and experience. It becomes possible to employ retirees, people with disabilities, or working parents. These are all groups who want to work, but find that daily commutes and the office environment just aren’t right for them.
The importance of company culture to the success of flexible working
Transitioning to a new way of working, particularly one as disruptive as moving from a physical to a virtual office, naturally brings some cultural changes.
Negative and unanticipated cultural changes need to be guarded against. Businesses that deploy remote workers do need to employ a whole new suite of management and communications techniques, as well as technologies, to manage compliance, security, productivity and morale. However, what makes for a great working culture remains true in the transition from an in-office to an at-home working environment.
Employees are drawn to organisations that foster a culture built around trust, transparency and mutual respect. For example, remote workers are not going to feel particularly trusted if they have to be on camera all day or ask for permission to step away from their desks. Managers also need to understand the realities of working from home. There will potentially be interruptions from children, pets and other family responsibilities, such as needing to answer the door. A few moments of downtime during a shift should be built into management’s expectations.
One of the questions we asked ourselves when COVID-19 hit was, “What is one unique element of our work culture that we can share with team members who are physically in different places?”
We focused on recognition. . We’ve always believed that we need to look after our people to enable them to look after our clients. Our employees have always appreciated and responded well to that. For example, we ran a thank you campaign where every single person received a hand-signed thank you card from their team leaders. This served to remind the team members that they are not faceless people behind computer screens, and they are still a valuable part of our teams and business.
Keeping these kinds of touch points, especially for remote workers, is important.
“It is about being deliberate. It’s thinking about how we can facilitate those casual engagements that happen spontaneously in office environments with our people who are now working virtually. We have to think about them very differently and make sure we are not losing that human connection which is so important to a business like ours.”
The importance of trust and duty of care
As we’ve already said, the key to successful flexible or hybrid working is to keep it, well, flexible. Working from home or in a hybrid arrangement should not be forced on anyone.
Making your name as an employer of choice is about more than being a big brand with great products and good press relations; it ultimately comes down to the day-to-day lived experience of your employees, wherever they work. That should be an authentic relationship, and it should be one where you as employer demonstrate a duty of care to your employees. Everything else is secondary to that.
With homeworkers and hybrid workers that duty of care extends to thinking about, for example, the alarming rates of domestic abuse in our societies and how to help keep our employees safe in their home workplaces.
Care also comes in the form of trust. Trust is the foundation of any successful relationship, including those between employers and employees. Flexible and remote working often requires employees to operate with a higher degree of autonomy. For this to be successful the trust needs to flow both ways. Employees need guidance, they need to know beforehand what’s expected of them – in terms of behaviour, hours worked, rules to observe, results to achieve – and they need to know how those things will be monitored and measured.
At the same time, we need to be conscious that we don’t build compliance structures to the lowest common denominator. Yes, we need to manage risk, but when designing hybrid and flexible working arrangements it has to be about supporting employees to optimise their performance. When we give assurances to employees that we believe in them, and we give them whatever support they need, they start to perform and shine.
Flexible and hybrid working is about enabling employees to take control of their own lives and decide for themselves exactly how work fits in. That doesn’t mean a free-for-all. Work still needs to get done just as efficiently and effectively as it always did, and employees need to take responsibility when trust is given. When flexible working is implemented with care and an understanding of what their side of the bargain is from both employers and employees, we believe both will see big wins.
TSA are Australia’s market leading specialists in CX consultancy and services. We are passionate about revolutionising the way brands connect with Australians. How? By combining our local expertise with the most sophisticated customer experience technology on earth, and delivering with an expert team of customer service consultants who know exactly how to help brands care for their customers.