Clocking into the 21st century

Author: Alison Maitland

The traditional working day belongs in the age of industry, not technology, says Alison Maitland. It's time for managers to grasp the benefits of a new approach.

When Gap, the San Francisco-based chain of High Street clothes shops, faced high staff turnover in one of its departments, it tried offering flexible working arrangements in the hope that it would stem the tide. It had little effect. So it adopted a radically new approach, abandoning entirely the expectation that people had to be at their desks in the office and measuring them instead on their output. Within six months the staff turnover rate had halved. More conventional flexible working practices, such as flexible start and finish times and nine-day fortnights, really only tinker at the edges of a model of work that goes back nearly 200 years to the rule by factory clock of the Industrial Revolution. Today, communications technology enables us to do much of our work anywhere, anytime. In a survey of 366 Cass alumni and other international managers for our book Future Work, a majority agreed that their organisations were not adapting fast enough to new ways of working. Rather than using mobile technology to transform work and make people's lives more manageable, companies have pasted it on top of the old model of work, extending the working day even further.

Results not hours
People are measured and rewarded for the hours they put in, rather than the results they produce. They often need permission to go to the dentist or attend their children's school play during the day. Those who put in long hours are seen as hard-working and dedicated, while those who work flexibly (even if they are super-efficient) can find they are stigmatised as "lacking commitment". I recently came across two examples of this absurdity: in one case, a woman lawyer was told by her boss that she had to go into the office every Saturday, even when there was no work to be done, just to be there. In the other, a senior manager refused to allow anyone to work from home on the grounds that they must be skiving. These are wasteful attitudes. The managers in our survey overwhelmingly agree that new ways of working would benefit their businesses and that people are more productive if they are given autonomy over their working patterns. Tackling such entrenched attitudes involves a change in corporate culture. It requires managers to understand that it is in the company's best interests to trust people to work in the way that works best for them. We must turn convention on its head and assume that all jobs can be flexible, restricting this only when there are logical constraints on time and place for particular tasks or activities.

Higher productivity
These changes have to come from the top of the organisation as a business strategy, not as a human resources programme. Most flexible working options are HR-driven and are seen primarily as an employee benefit. Managers often regard them as a cost and an imposition. As a result, many employees fear that their careers will suffer if they request flexibility and they hold back from doing so. Many companies have not yet grasped the full business benefits of transforming work. Our research shows that these include higher productivity, lower costs, faster access to new markets, better customer service and more initiative and discretionary effort from employees. Why would any competitive business want to turn down such opportunities?

Alison Maitland is a Senior Visiting Fellow at Cass and co-author with Peter Thomson of Future Work: How Businesses Can Adapt and Thrive in the New World of Work (Palgrave Macmillan, published
7 October 2011).