From providing a helping hand for disillusioned youth to easing traffic in some of the world’s most congested cities, Paul Sillers finds out how flexible working is making a difference in countries across the globe
1. New Zealand: productivity gain
An unprecedented productivity trial of flexible working practises this March by Auckland-based trustee company Perpetual Guardian yielded some astonishing results. For six weeks, 240 of its employees were offered a day off every week, with all other employment conditions unchanged. Same pay, fewer hours. The deal requires its workers to match the productivity of a five-day week, but this was attained through employees coming up with innovative ways of working within the reduced weekly timeframe.
“If employees are engaged with their job and employer, they’re more productive,” says the company’s Head of People and Capability Christine Brotherton. “We believe efficiency will come with more staff focus and motivation, and this trial is a valuable and timely way to test our theories”(1).
According to qualitative and quantitative research(2) conducted by the Auckland University of Technology and the University of Auckland, the four-day working week trial was demonstrated to have improved work-life balance among its employees by 24 per cent, decreased stress levels by 7 per cent, and increased "overall life satisfaction by 5 percentage points"(3). Significantly, the results showed “no reduction in job performance and the survey data showed a marginal increase across most teams”(4), garnering media attention both nationally and internationally. Could there be a ripple effect across the broader workforce? According to the New Zealand Herald other Kiwi companies are keeping a watchful eye over Perpetual Guardian’s next steps(5).
2. Malaysia: tapping the opportunity
Equal opportunity in the workforce is the pivotal point for Malaysia’s shift towards embracing flexible working. While a recent survey by TalentCorp and E&Y found 90 per cent of organisations in Malaysia acknowledge the importance of offering flexibility(6), until recently, reality has lagged the aspiration – another study revealed 58 per cent of employees in Malaysia are unable to work from home, while 36 per cent have no option for flexible working. Consequently, 94 per cent of women surveyed said they’d be seeking a new job in the next 12 months(7).
Responding to this employee retention issue the country’s Deputy Prime Minister is championing a political endorsement for flexible working hours, enabling women to leverage their professional skills whilst balancing parental responsibilities: "We have many highly educated women with great track records, but they also have small children to take care of,” says Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail (who is also Women, Family and Community Development Minister). “If we don’t tap into the opportunity, it will be a great loss to the country.”(8)
And corporations are listening. For example, Citibank is the first bank in Malaysia to offer childcare facilities(9) – that’s in addition to ‘flextime’ work, remote work, a compressed work week, job sharing, part-time work and leave of absence arrangements(10). EY Malaysia offers employees in supervisory roles staggered working hours, the flexibility of working part-time from home, career breaks, sabbatical leave and phased retirement. And there’s also an ‘informal FWA’ (Flexible Work Arrangement), enabling some employees to work from home or to take time off to handle personal matters, closely working with their teams to ensure work targets are met(11).
Separately, at IBM Malaysia, a mobility programme lets employees work from home or at customer facilities, and there are arrangements for part-time work as well as a two or three-day week(12).
3. South Africa: remote control
Cape Town – one of the world’s most congested cities(13) – is implementing remote working(14) arrangements and flexible working to liberate its workforce from the frustrations of the city’s grinding traffic problems(15). Frequent interruptions in rail services were compelling workers to use their cars to get to work, exacerbating the stress on Cape Town’s arterial roads, but flexible working measures to get the city moving again now include telecommuting, working remotely or at-home options(16). The city’s authorities are trying to persuade employers to put their weight behind the initiative, and the concept is gaining traction.
Tax advisory firm Grant Thornton was an early instigator of flexible working in Cape Town(17). While it requires its employees to work eight hours Mondays to Thursdays and 7.5 hours on Fridays, workers can choose their start and end times between 6.30am and 5.45pm.
In Malaysia, 90 per cent of organisations acknowledge the importance of offering flexibility
4. Germany: striking a balance
In Germany ‘warning strikes’ by employees earlier this year, to show employers that they weren’t bluffing, was sufficient to elicit significant flexible working concessions(18). It means workers will be able to reduce their weekly hours from 35 to 28 for up to two years to attend family commitments in a deal covering almost a million employees in Baden-Württemberg.
In a recent negotiation between Deutsche Bahn and its employees, the rail operator found that when it offered a choice between higher pay, shorter hours or more days off, over 50 per cent of workers chose to have more days off(19).
It’s not that Germans are any less committed to their famously diligent work ethic(20), it’s just that they’re becoming more vocal about their desire for flexible working. With Germany’s economy now seeing high levels of employment and stretched to find skilled professionals, the quest for more flexible working has rippled across Germany’s big corporations and institutions.
For example, Union Verdi is demanding a choice between a six per cent wage increase or more time off for around 130,000 workers at postal and logistics group Deutsche Post(21), and names that are internationally familiar such as Porsche and Daimler, which produces Mercedes-Benz cars, have also been affected by union demands for flexible working arrangements(22).
5. Japan: youth engagement
Japan’s declining birth rate(23), an ageing population(24), and the adverse effects of overworking(25) all add up to an HR headache. Yet, ironically, the latest official statistics show that as many as 600,000 of the country’s youth are unemployed(26). Flexible working is the Government’s formula to help young people acquire relevant skills so that they can become more employable within an otherwise diminishing workforce pool.
Incentives include subsidies that cultivate a new mindset in Japanese business oriented around the advantages of flexible working. This includes remote working (to alleviate the country’s crammed commuter trains) as well as teleworking and other internet and cloud-based methods of connecting with offices.
Businesses have responded by using technology to get the under-utilised youth resource engaged — and trained, using remote working methods. For example, Tokyo’s SODATEAGE-NET with the cooperation of Microsoft Japan conducted a ‘Youth UP’ teleworking internship programme(27) whereby Microsoft sends instructors to nonprofit organisations where they help people build their IT skills and provide training for support group staff so they can become IT instructors themselves. Within two years of the project’s launch, 41 nonprofit organisations have joined across Japan.
In a separate initiative, this August, pharmaceutical company Takeda unveiled its ‘highly flexible work system’(28) which includes an abolition of set minimum working hours per day; half-day vacations; mid-work breaks (extra break time); short breaks during working hours for doctor’s appointments or bank visits, subject to supervisor approval; and a change to ‘Telework’ – in other words working flexibly and remotely but not necessarily from home.
6. UK: manifesto for change
Data recently published by HSBC(29) reveals that “89 per cent of British employees believe flexible working is key to boosting productivity levels”, with “flexible working more likely to increase worker productivity than financial incentives”. Furthermore, 81 per cent of UK workers who can work remotely believe this opportunity helps them to improve their productivity: a clear link between flexible working cultures and increased business productivity.
Flexible working consultancy Timewise(30) has been championing the cause of agile working by developing programmes that fit the business cases and strategic goals of organisations. In a report co-published with Deloitte(31), it outlines a five-step plan of action: provoking cultural change, increased gender neutrality, designing flexibility into jobs, getting management buy-in, and data collection from successful programmes.
The consultancy also publishes an annual ‘Timewise Power 50’ award(32), identifying leaders and innovative employers that promote flexible working. Lloyds Banking Group won the award for ‘Flexible Hiring’ due to “the recent decision to take a team-based approach to agile working, supported by a line manager toolkit which takes into account the needs of the whole team when planning roles”. Agility is now the default offer from Lloyds – around 90 per cent of all vacancies are now advertised as agile, compared to a national average of 12 per cent.
The UK Ministry of Defence was also awarded for its ‘Flexible Duties Trial’ which investigates how flexible job design could allow serving personnel to ‘dial down’ their level of commitment for a limited period in the course of a longer service career.
Paul Sillers is a British journalist and the author of International Business Etiquette 20:20