Agile working: put your faith in the (female) workforce and you’ll get productivity back in spades.

Written by: Andrew Kennedy
Published on: 13 May 2017

    Back in 2004 I was Head of Recruitment for a large housing association. I was supporting the Chief Financial Officer to recruit a Head of Risk Management - quite a senior role, covering a national brief, working full time, based in London, managing six staff (all based in London). We were paying decent money and the applicant pool was OK, but not amazing. Three days from the closing date I took a call from a candidate who sounded perfect. At the end of the conversation she declared that she, ideally, wanted to do this role working a four-day week and, as she lived two hours outside London, she wanted to do one of these days from home. When I told the CFO that I had found our perfect candidate, he was delighted. When I told him that she’d only be in the office three days a week, he wasn’t delighted. “No way” was the response. “There’s a team to manage, and they need to be in the office near me so that I can call upon them at any time.” I told him that, in my view, it was better to have someone phenomenal, working 80%, than someone mediocre working 100%. I also reminded him that he expected this person to be “out and about” across different sites so, surely, they wouldn’t be in the office all of the week anyway. He just glared at me. But then he said “OK, Andrew. Book her in but she’d better be “phenomenal” as you put it”.

    Fast forward two weeks: we brought her in, we loved her, the CEO loved her and she worked there for 10 years and she took us forward leaps and bounds in the world of risk management, getting us out of many a hole.

    And it wasn’t long after that that it became fashionable for HR authors such as Charles Handy and Dave Ulrich to write about how there are more than two million women working in the UK at the level below their potential because employers won’t consider them for senior roles working less than full time. Why on earth not?

    But it’s not just women. I work in central London (or that’s where my contractual base is) but I live in Cambridge and have a 90 minute journey to work each way. Thankfully, my boss is amenable to me working from the Cambridge office two days a week (even though none of my team is based there) and I can’t tell you what a difference it makes. Commuting for three hours a day, five days a week, is exhausting. But now that I only need to do it three days a week, I can’t begin to tell you the difference it makes to my wellbeing and my state of mind. And, as my wife has a big role locally, it also means that I can help with the school run.

    There’s an argument that this is all fine, but that it can only work for senior roles. While that’s obviously important for readers of the Careers Advice page on exec-appointments, I would say that it’s important not to be so prescriptive. Good directors push the boundaries of ‘conventional’ thinking.  In a previous role I was Head of HR for a national health charity and one of my HR administrators asked if she could work from home 2 days a week. She had a young family, wasn’t paid the highest of salaries, but lived far out of town and it was getting her down. So we gave her a laptop, a company mobile, access to all the HR databases through a VPN and, I tell you, it was transformational. She was always contactable, always chipper, could do everything from home that she could do in the office, but her loyalty to the organisation, because we let her work her role, her way, grew exponentially.

    So, in that same charity we decided to give agile and flexible working a good-old go. We said that if you felt you could make it work, moulding your role to work in a different way, then we’d be open to the conversation. And it really worked. A policy analyst, struggling to buy their first home in London (part of generation rent) asked if we were serious about allowing her to work from home a couple of days a week. I said we were. This was music to her ears as it allowed her to buy her own home, an hour or so out of town, close to where she grew up. It’s not a journey she would have considered doing five days a week but, three days? Life changing.

    Now, I am still staggered when I talk to HR Directors who say that there’s no way they’d get away with taking such a bold approach in their organisations. I quite often hear “people from home might take the mick”. Well, if so, I would question why these people are being employed in the first place. And, having followed this mantra for nearly four years now, I can report that it really does work. Treat people like adults and they’ll give you back the loyalty and productivity ten-fold. And that’s what it’s all about: maximising productivity. Peoples’ lifestyles get in the way of productivity, but not if you take a more mature approach.

    There are economic benefits too. Retention goes up, recruitment costs go down and absenteeism goes down. In my present organisation we’re space-planning for our new London office. And, because we take a mature approach to peoples’ whereabouts and how we manage them, we can plan for many fewer desks than we have in our current place: thereby reducing the expensive prime London square-footage that we would have otherwise been required to occupy. Win-win!

    So, my advice is to give this a go and I think you’ll find that it works.         

    Andrew Kennedy is Head of HR for English Heritage