Agile working arrangements have come to be associated with working mothers, but fundamentally they need to be about keeping all employees happy. Implementing flexible working can lead to increased engagement, lower turnover and – importantly – less stress among employees. All of this equates to a more satisfied workforce.
Tracey Parnell, who works in Partner Services at Deloitte, says that a “typical midlife crisis”, led her to seek out new challenges in her life. She climbed Kilimanjaro and started running half marathons – all under her own time.
Later this year, however, she’s participating in Deloitte’s new Time Out scheme, which allows employees to take four weeks’ unpaid leave – no questions asked – to walk 800km on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. The plan is to switch off from the day-job entirely.
“It gives me a chance to re-evaluate my life and really get my head straight, and I'm expecting it to be a spiritual experience,” she says. “It’s really important for firms to offer the chance to take time out to pursue your passions. Ultimately, over the long term, there’s a chance I would have strongly considered looking for a new role if this opportunity wasn’t available.”
Since June 2014, the Time Out offer has become one of the most popular elements of Deloitte’s agile working programme. 195 people have so far applied for the scheme, including partners, and the gender split is roughly equal – 55% female and 45% male, highlighting the appeal and benefits for all.
While there’s a fair share of people going on adventures like Tracey, a lot of people are simply trying to rebalance demanding professional and personal lives. Lorraine Bellenger, an executive assistant working in Deloitte’s Reading office, already works in an agile manner – working 27 hours a week over four days and spending one day at home. Later this year she will also be using the Time Out scheme to spend four solid weeks with her seven-year-old son.
“It’s important to be able to spend the summer holidays with my son, while he still wants to spend it with me – this might not be the case when he gets older,” she says. “It’s also an opportunity for me to get more involved with a local charity I’ve been working with. Essentially, it’s a practical childcare arrangement, but also a great chance to connect with my son that wouldn’t usually be available.”
Research published in the Asia-Pacific Journal of Human Resources earlier this year supported the perhaps unsurprising hypothesis that flexible working arrangements lead to lower turnover, greater employee engagement and a reduction in ‘psychological strain’. However, it also said that success of these programmes is highly dependent on “workplace cultural norms”. In other words, it’s one thing implementing these programmes at a corporate level, but if employees feel ostracised by taking them up then their effect is ultimately negative.
Deloitte’s new agile working programme is available to all employees and the hope is that it will become embedded in the culture of the organisation. Agile working arrangements don’t have to be large-scale formal programmes – they can just make lives a little easier.
Robert Gore, a director in Deloitte’s Valuation team in Corporate Finance, is an example of this. He moved out of London three years’ ago to West Sussex to start a family and now has three hours of commuting daily. An informal working arrangement with his boss and secure connectivity allows him to start work remotely from 8am, and again on the way home in order to meet his responsibilities and spend more time with his wife and young sons.
“When you’re in the office, you’re expected to hit the ground running, so being able to get some work done on the train really helps,” he says. “My second child was born six weeks ago and it was quite a difficult pregnancy for my wife, so I’ve really valued the chance to give her a little more support at home. The commute and the demands of the job mean I would never have had that opportunity if I was constantly required to be at my desk.”
Deloitte’s push to a more agile working environment has been well-received internally. In its annual People Survey, there was a 12% increase on the positivity of responses to the perception of agile working – the single biggest increase of any area.
Nick Stocker, a sponsorship manager at Deloitte, has a more unconventional agile working arrangement. He’s skipper of a six-man team rowing across the widest point of the English Channel, aiming to raise £20k through the charity Waves 4 Hope. This is a huge time commitment – Nick has to arrange fund-raising events, finish work early to set up team rowing sessions on the water and take whole afternoons off for long endurance training sessions.
“There are logistical elements you would never have thought of. I work from home occasionally to be able to take deliveries of kit and sponsorship equipment and – strangely – large quantities of meat. I have to arrange the team’s nutritional needs and this means 40-50 chicken breasts a week,” he says. “But the main thing is the commitment to training and subsequent recovery time that’s difficult to fit into a regular working week. This is all new territory for us – none of us has done any rowing before this event.”
Taking advantage of agile working practices on offer is, ultimately, very difficult without the buy-in of your line manager and team, according to all the people who we spoke to.
“When I first started working for Deloitte 25 years’ ago, it was incredibly rigid working hours,” says Lorraine. “[Agility is] much more accepted across the organisation now – partners also work in an agile manner, so are much more understanding about your arrangements. It’s not just about working mothers – there’s a demand across the organisation.”
“I very much doubt that my line manager would be very pleased about me spending six hours on the water when we have a big project looming,” adds Nick. “Agile working has been a great help, but to get the buy-in of your peers and line manager you still need to make it work around the demands of the job.”
Rob says: “Working in an agile manner does not mean lacking commitment – I start work early, leave the office most days at 6-7pm and often turn on the laptop after the kids go to bed to ensure the work gets done. Ultimately, it’s about achieving a good balance between professional and personal lives and still being able to deliver.”
The real challenge and opportunity seems to be how to make this type of individual working arrangement the new norm.