There are key areas to consider when implementing a flexible working policy.
There is absolutely no doubt that communication is harder when teams are working flexibly, and considerable effort should be put into providing easy and effective ways for individuals and teams to communicate.
To a certain extent, this requires a culture shift and new rules of engagement to avoid everyone relying totally on email for communication.
Everyone needs to be encouraged to pick up the phone and speak to others, ideally using video calls so people see one another regularly.
This does not happen naturally, as people are worried about interrupting others and shy about using video. Encourage people to book a time to talk by phone or ideally video and ensure this behaviour is led by the leaders of the organisation.
The hardest communication to encourage in a virtual working environment is friendly chats. How was your weekend? How is your son getting on at university?
. . . and so on.
It is important to allow for these types of conversations to foster team spirit and develop healthy working relationships across teams.
At Designated Medical we have a weekly ‘cuppa and a chat’ that is completely optional but open for those who want to drop in for a bit of light relief.
Every quarter we hold a ‘town hall’ meeting which is a more formal event, bringing the whole company together for a business update followed by a fun activity led by someone on the team.
Technology enables flexible working and is a vital consideration.
Working flexibly requires a truly paperless office environment, and those who are still relying on processes that depend on paper changing hands will need to revise these processes and most often employ technology as the enabler.
This might involve the use of SharePoint for Microsoft Users or Google Drive or increased use of specialist cloud-based systems such as practice management systems and other relevant ones that encompass your marketing, finance, and human resources departments.
For example, Xero is a commonly used accounting system that enables remote working for your finance team. Cost-effective technology is widely available and, implemented correctly, can provide huge efficiencies.
Video calls, either using Zoom or Microsoft Teams, are now familiar and we have all now learned where the unmute button is! There are numerous other technologies to encourage communication and collaboration, including Slack, conference calls, shared documents.
A flexible working policy will generally be a big positive when you are recruiting and it also allows you to recruit from wider geography.
Instead of being limited by commuting time to the office or clinic, you can potentially recruit from further afield and appeal to a broader group of candidates.
We currently have marketing managers working for us based in South Africa and Spain. We also have a book-keeper based in New Zealand. The time difference is a consideration, of course, but aside from that, most things are possible.
However, flexible working and especially home working does not suit everyone. The ONS Survey that I mentioned previously reported that younger people are less likely to work from home and this is for good reason.
For those who are starting in their career, the benefit of an office environment is significant, as it provides the opportunity to learn from senior team members and managers. Working in collaboration is very important in the early stages of any job.
There is also a sociable element to consider, with younger people and new joiners more likely to feel isolated working from home and valuing the opportunity to make contacts and even friends at work over a coffee or popping out for a glass of wine after work on a Thursday evening.
Anybody who saw the struggles of the news presenter last summer, being interrupted by a small child mid-broadcast, will also recognise that home working is not always well suited to those who have young children unless they have an office space to protect them from unexpected interruptions and childcare in the home.
There are numerous examples of excellent training provided via online learning remotely and flexibly, including the Open Univ-ersity which has been doing so since 1969. Even softer skills like leadership and management can be learned in a remote working environment.
I have absolutely no doubt that it is possible and often sensible to manage training in this way. The ability for consultants to learn new techniques by watching a video of another consultant performing it, perhaps in another country, is hugely powerful.
But, as I said earlier, we cannot underestimate the power of individuals learning from colleagues in person, especially more senior individuals within an organisation; and I would offer a slight health warning regarding the more informal training concerning graduates, younger team members and new recruits to an organisation.
Managing a remote team requires a greater focus on communication when team members are working on an individual basis and there needs to be built-in plans to bring the team members together to have discussions that ensure they continue to work together as one team.
The responsibility for creating this culture will always lie with the manager leader and, ideally, we need a team manager who embraces flexible working and leads by example, using video and conference calls to encourage team discussion and collaboration.
It is at this point I will raise the thorny question that I am often asked by managers who are sceptical about flexible working, which is ‘How do I know if my employees are working at home?’
This is a good question and I could spend considerable time answering this, so I will try to summarise by saying that trust is vital. Most people come to work to do a good job and take pride in their role.
The minority of people, who are not committed to their work and are lazy in the office, will also be lazy when working from home and this is a management issue regardless of the working environment.
Most people value the opportunity to work in the most productive way for them and will deliver a greater contribution to your organisation when trusted to do a good job.
It’s outcomes that count
As leaders, we need to think about the work our teams are doing differently. Ultimately, it is the outcomes of the work that is done that is most important.
If a medical PA is running a busy practice, answering patients’ phone calls, booking appointments, typing dictations in a timely way and the consultant and patients are happy, we know that person is doing a good job.
We could check the medical PA is logged on to the practice management system at 9am sharp but if the outcomes of the work being done are all good, then this is unnecessary and potentially damaging to the culture of the team.
This type of checking and micro-management should only be needed when we have doubts about the outcomes.
In many companies, there is a culture of presenteeism. Those employees at their office desk at 8am and still there at 7pm are the ones in line for a promotion. But with flexible working, we need a culture where our employees are trusted to do their job.
We must measure their performance on the quality of the work they deliver. At the end of the day, this is what benefits our patients and ultimately benefits our organisations.
In conclusion, I would like to re-emphasise my opinion that a flexible working policy is essential for all organisations, but it requires real thought as to which roles are suited to a flexible approach, consideration given to the people who would embrace flexible working and the implementation of technologies and a working culture that supports it.
And, as business leaders, we need to pay attention to the development of the next generation of employees joining our teams, who need the support and guidance of more experienced team members and managers.
If you would like to discuss your flexible working policy with me, please do get in touch and I will be happy to share any advice and guidance from my own personal experiences.