#FlexibleFirst Campaign How to be #FlexibleFirst Last Updated: Jun 24, 2021

#FlexibleFirst Toolkit

This toolkit is designed to give leaders and talent the information and strategies they need to implement two-way flexible working in their organisations. We look at the business case, what flexible working in all its forms really means, some of the possible hurdles (and how to address them) and – most importantly – how to get started.

Flexible First Frontrunners

Interview Series

CEO of ITV, Dame Carolyn McCall is the first in our #FlexibleFirst Frontrunner interview series featuring some of the very best UK business leaders at the forefront of #flexibleworking. Watch the interviews in full here as they go live over the next few months, and please do follow @WACL2 on Instagram, where we’re launching each new episode in the series with one short Q&A segment shared each day over the course of a week.

WACL’s Flexible First Frontrunner interview series is produced by our brilliant partners NPL Media Ltd.

Case Studies

Unilever’s Introduction to Flexible Working

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Our Approach to flexible working, Publicis Media

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Vodafone’s Approach: Becoming #FlexibleFirst

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Dara Nasr, Managing Director of Twitter UK: Busting the Myth of the Great Office Return

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A WACL Webinar: Why the Future of Work is #FlexibleFirst, June 7, 2021

After the experiences of the last year, we are left with no doubt that almost all of us – 9 out of 10 men and women, according to Timewise’s Flexible Jobs Index 2020 – want to work flexibly. Over a decade of research and blue-chip case studies gathered by WACL prove that flexible working accelerates equality for all and unlocks productivity and potential performance whilst improving retention, recruitment, and resilience.

WACL got together some of the industry’s most innovative thinkers on flexible working for a lively discussion about the future of work and the role flexible working can play. Annie Auerbach, the author of “Flex” and co-founder of Starling, looked at why society needs us to think big and be architects of a new way of living and working; Sinéad Rocks, Managing Director, Nations & Regions at Channel 4, considered how to create spaces that make the commute worthwhile and the importance of measuring outputs not hours; whilst Rania Robinson, CEO & Partner at Quiet Storm, called for organisations to take difference and the needs of the individual into account alongside the whole, and also dug into how to maintain creative collaboration amongst hybrid teams.

A poll taken at the start of the event showed that just over half of participants felt confident their organisations have embraced #FlexibleFirst practices, but that still left half who feel that the approach was piecemeal or, worse, that there is still a stigma attached to working in their workplaces.

Adopt a test and learn approach to hybrid working

Mel Exon opened the webinar landing why WACL believes #FlexibleFirst working practices are essential as organisations plan for the future of work and the workplace. Moving on to discuss the hot topic of the day – hybrid working – she cited a recent Behavioural Insights Team trial as evidence for the fact companies are likely to fare better if they adopt a test-and-learn approach, rather than setting quotas on the number of days workers should spend working remotely. The BIT research showed that when a fixed number of days was stipulated (even when it’s representative of the average preference), this only satisfies a minority, and runs the risk of creating a gender gap, with women reducing their intention to work from home by 8%, whilst men’s intentions did not change.

Think big: this is a moment of ambition 

Su-Mei Thompson began the interviews that followed by asking Annie Auerbach why she had written her book, FLEX: Reinventing work for a smarter, happier life. Annie discussed her experience of “flexism”: the issue of flexible workers being perceived as less committed, leading to slower career progression on the one hand, and the need to be performatively busy at the times she had chosen not to work. Annie shared four major findings from the research she conducted for her book:

1. ”Burnout and presenteeism (“burnt out bums on seats”) were issues long before the pandemic. The UK is near the bottom of the G7 league table in terms of productivity, despite having some of the longest working hours.

2. Self-knowledge is important for helping us to optimise and to make sure that we work and live at our best. The rigidity of the 9-5 is not for everyone; we need to be able to capitalise on the moments when we are energised and performing at our best.

3. Gender inequality. We are conditioning girls from an early age to take on the emotional load, resulting in the ‘motherhood penalty and the fatherhood boost’ in earnings potential.

4. How can we pivot, retrain, and reskill to accommodate an ageing workforce. We need to think flexibly and sustainably about how to work past the age of 50.

Annie described a profound, once-in-a-generation chance to think intentionally about how we work and how we live. She discussed her frustration at people trying to nail down new models prematurely, and urged us to think differently and ambitiously about how we want society to be.

Measure performance on outputs, not hours

Sinéad Rocks shared her experiences with Channel 4 during the lockdown and talked about how they are building back better with a 50-50 ‘manifesto, not a policy that has been borne of staff engagement and the sense that people want to be together a part of the time, but not all of the time.

She explained that the biggest shift at Channel 4 is not about office vs remote working, but the flexibility about how and when you do your work. “Performance should be measured on output, not hours” adding “there are times of day when someone may want to be bathing and reading to their baby, and if that means they log in later in the evening, that should ideally be their choice”, she said.

Sinéad added:

When people are coming into the office only part of the time, the challenge is how to make the commute feel worthwhile. How to provide sociability, camaraderie, and spontaneity, and how to help lighten the cognitive load you get when you’ve been on Zoom all day.”  
Sinéad Rocks

This is our reset moment […] I can make calculated assumptions, but I’d rather put the building together in a way that staff can work out what is best for them.” The idea is to move away from the “call centre” fixed desks to look at collaborative spaces, private spaces, comfortable and relaxed spaces – anything to create a physical environment that excites people on the days when they come into work.

We want to give them a chance to re-energise, to be with colleagues and to feel part of the organisation, because remote working can be isolating. I want all of us to be hyper productive at home and hyper productive in the office as well.”

One size does not fit all

Rania Robinson is also working on how to retain and optimise the flexibility that the agency developed during lockdown. Quiet Storm had always been informally pretty flexible, but is now keen to create company policy around a more conscious version of flexible working.

The experience of wholesale working from home created a sense of respect for each other’s schedules and personal situations, and there was positive feedback from staff around the ability to fit other things that mattered into their lives. But as time went on, the cracks started to show, certainly with newer, younger members of staff who needed more personal input – and while the work was good, the creatives just didn’t have as much fun making it.

Everything became very task-led, which was great for productivity, but Rania came to realise that the softer things were getting lost, like camaraderie, collaboration and bonding. She reiterated they had also found the benefits of flexibility go beyond working from home – it’s about how you work, when, and how long you work.

Rania said: “None of us want to go back to the way it was, but change can make people feel uncomfortable. The radical shift we’ve been through has left us with an openness to doing things differently, so we are trying stuff out to see how it works.”

She also stressed that this is an exciting opportunity to build a truly inclusive environment, taking into account people’s different backgrounds, levels of experience and comfort in the workplace whilst also allowing them to enjoy a working life that supports their own personal values and wellbeing:

“People need an environment that will take into account their differences. We need an approach to flexible working that works for everybody.”

Provide freedom within a framework

The panel Q&A was hosted by Mel Exon, starting with a question from the audience about the difficulty of providing the clear ground rules that people are looking for around hybrid working, without enforcing a one-size-fits-all situation. Sinéad said that Channel 4 has hired consultants to work closely with staff teams to find the best practice for a hybrid workplace, and devise ways to arrange schedules so that there is time to think at home, as well as the opportunity to meet up at work. For Annie, the answer is about adaptive leadership. She said: “Just because you are being flexible doesn’t mean you should bend over backwards. Flexibility needs hard edges, which we have to build as we go by testing and learning.”

Other topics that came up for discussion were the need to unpick the gendered response to flexible working, as well as how to prioritise creativity and collaboration between members of a hybrid workforce. Sinéad said: “It’s about investing in things that give you a reason to come to work, creating opportunities for people to come out of their silos and spend time with people elsewhere in the organisation. That’s when great things happen – otherwise you are just replicating systems and processes.”

On the question of what really happens when companies offer flexibility, Annie said that productivity during the pandemic had finally put to bed the “work from home / shirk from home” myth. She added: “It’s now well known that flexible working is more likely to increase discretionary effort; it has a positive impact on retention and mental health, and it allows you to take care of yourself and the people around you.”

A closing poll showed that 54% of the audience were already working flexibly and felt confident about the same, whilst 39% of the audience felt more confident about the flexible working than they had done at the start of the session.

Catherine Becker rounded off the event calling on organisations to check their progress with WACL’s free #FlexibleFirst Checklist backed by CMI, ISBA and Campaign, which includes four key steps for any organisation to take in order to build back better:

  • Collaborative technology
  • Employee support systems
  • Leadership training
  • Agreed metrics

If you missed the event, you can catch the recording in full below:

A WACL Webinar: How to be a #FlexibleFirst Organisation, October 6, 2020

Featuring phenomenal perspectives from three WACL leaders who have already seen the multiple benefits within their own organisations, we were delighted to have so many attendees join us to hear their stories. If you missed it, you can access the webinar recording in full on the Zoom link here, or watch the individual presentations and interviews below

Introduction: Catherine Becker
Presentation: Mel Exon
Aline Santos
Justine Roberts
Katrina Lowes
Conclusion: Catherine Becker

AllBright x WACL Wednesday, November 4, 2020

On the day the US election results began to roll in and on the eve of the second UK lockdown, Mel Exon (Campaigning committee 2020/21) joined Claire Enders and Anna Jones for a WACL Wednesday event where the panel looked at the global consequences of the She-cession on business, families and society. They debated the evidence and discussed advice and actionable ideas for what businesses, leaders and women can all do to prevent further setbacks, including the major role flexible working can play.