Flexible Working, Inflexible Attitudes

A page in the Business section of recent edition of the Press made interesting reading.  The lead article was a report on the implications of the new Flexible Work Arrangements Act, which will allow those employees who care for others the legal right to flexible working arrangements.  The business community – or part of it at any rate – is predictably upset by the new Act, arguing that it will make unacceptable demands on small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).  The feedback to Claire Massey of the NZCentre for SME Research is that these employers resent being dictated to, and that their view is ‘Come on, give us a break, we have more common sense than that’ – in other words, you don’t need to legislate, we look after our staff already.

It is true that new legislation can add burdensome layers of compliance regulation and paperwork, but the idea that employers are already looking after their staff is not.  In my experience, like almost anything else there is a bell-curve, with a few employers who really do look after staff, the majority in the middle doing only an average job, and a few down the other end who only care about the bottom line.  The paradox is that looking after your staff is what working smarter means – those companies at the best-practice end of the continuum generally achieve far more with the same number of staff, because those staff are happy and therefore work well.  They also stay.  Companies at the opposite end of the continuum tend to have high turnover, which is a very real issue in an economic environment of extremely low unemployment.

The heart of the problem is a misguided ‘nose-to-the-grindstone’ attitude.  Here’s what it looks like: in one company I worked with, staff would leave their jackets on the backs of their chairs when they took breaks, just in case someone thought they were actually taking a break.  In other words, unless bums are on seats, work isn’t getting done.  This fallacy was disproved a long, long time ago, when production line staff were allowed to work next to each other.  Management’s response: ‘they’ll just chatter, and do less work!’  The truth?  Of course they chatted, were therefore happier, and were in fact far more productive.  Managers will often protest that their people are perfectly happy, ‘just ask them!’.   I have, in the absence of the manager, and the response is very different.  Come on, give them a break, they have more common sense than to admit it, but how long do they stay?  Managers who don’t actually care about the welfare of their staff – and that includes all of those doing just an average job – already have retention problems that will only get worse.

Paradoxically, on the same page ofThe Press was a report of an interview with BNZ chief executive Phil O’Rielly. We can confidently assume that this is someone with the experience and common sense to be able to offer sound advice.  One of his key tips: ‘Attracting and retaining quality staff is fundamental to your core business.  Are you offering positive, secure and flexible working environments that will do this?’.  Here are my suggestions: instead of acting like Luddites, broadcast to your staff the fact that you’re embracing flexible working, then collaborate with them to create a company ethos based on mutual trust instead of ‘us and them’.  New Zealand is a tiny player in the global game; all the more need to start really working smarter.  And try to create a company climate based on people being happy to work there.  Not difficult, really, just start with the simple principle of not giving your staff anything to ruminate about negatively and destructively after you’ve left the room.  Think it doesn’t happen in your business?  Think again; statistically it is highly likely.