How Marketers Can Lead The Charge For Flexible Working

As Microsoft has just finished a trial into four-day working weeks, there’s an opportunity for marketing departments to join forces with HR and widen access to life-enhancing flexible-working schemes. 

In Japan this past August, Microsoft ran the Work-Life Choice Challenge Summer 2019 experiment. That month, it gave all its 2,300 staff every Friday off for five weeks – without decreasing their pay. This week, the tech giant reported that the four-day weeks had boosted productivity by an eye-catching 40%, made workers happier and encouraged more efficient meetings. Employees also took 25% less time off, printed 59% fewer sheets of paper and used 23% less electricity. And yet, even with sustainability emerging as another new feather for the four-day week, Microsoft has no firm plans to implement it more permanently.

Perhaps Microsoft thinks it can do even better with an alternative flexible-working scheme. “Four-day weeks have great headline appeal and can deliver a big boost to any employer brand,” says CIM marketing director Gemma Butler, “but they are not a one-size-fits-all solution to workplace problems around productivity and staff well-being.” In fact, wouldn’t the top-down imposition of a single approach really take some of the flexibility out of flexible working?

Indeed, Microsoft’s decision not to follow through on the promising results of its trial (yet) isn’t necessarily a cause for criticism. In this instance, the tech giant should perhaps be applauded for trialling something that’s still pretty new. “If businesses are to make real in-roads into the issues around work-life balance, they need to be brave,” says CIM’s Ally Lee-Boone. “They have to identify their own particular issues and explore solutions that might work for them. This can probably only be done on a trial-and-error basis, which means there will be dead ends. But, as trials like Microsoft’s have now shown, the results can make the entire endeavour worthwhile.” Perhaps Microsoft Japan has an even more promising alternative it wants to try. The company are planning to implement a second experiment this winter, but without offering the same ‘special leave’.

Turning closer to home, both Japan and the UK have poor overall productivity. According to the Office for National Statistics, Japan is one of the few major economies whose GDP per hour worked is actually lower than the UK’s. But that does not mean the underlying issues creating that poor productivity are the same in each country.

In the UK, more than 80% of respondents to the CIPD’s 2019 Health & Well Being At Work survey said they had recently seen ‘presenteeism’ (staff working while sick) in their organisation. Almost two-thirds reported cases of ‘leaveism’ (staff working outside contracted hours). Both issues have a range of causes, from excessive workload and job insecurity to staff simply wanting to make an impression.

This is where marketing departments can make an informed case. Internal marketing can unearth those root causes in a particular organization. “If marketers can take the expertise they use externally – particularly the ability to implement, communicate and measure campaigns – and apply that internally, they are best placed to work with HR to identify a flexible working solution that best meets the needs of both employers and employees,” says Butler.

Digging even deeper, they can even help at a departmental level, identifying the functions that could sustain alternative working patterns and those that couldn’t (customer-facing ones, perhaps). “Speak to individual employees,” advises Lee-Boone. “As well as identifying specific issues, this will bring programmes and solutions into the open and help with engagement.”

Tracking that engagement will then be key to finding the right long-term solution. “Microsoft used a sales metric to measure productivity during the trial,” says Butler. “But the underlying issue here is employee health and well-being in the workplace, so I would first and foremost be recording how employees are feeling in terms of work-life balance and their mental health.”

There was another avant-garde aspect to Microsoft’s approach. It didn’t just leave its staff to decide for themselves how best to use their Fridays. It offered subsidies that encouraged them to devote it to volunteering, professional development or family activities. While 97% of staff like the extra time for the latter two options, only 83% appreciated the volunteering idea.

“This speaks to the trust issue that many employers still have around flexible working,” says Butler. “Flexible working does have to be truly flexible and the ability to make it so has certainly increased in recent years, as technological solutions have facilitated innovative methods of getting tasks done.” Microsoft certainly took this on board, by limiting meetings to just 30 minutes and encouraging communication via Teams. “This is potentially a long and steep learning curve for some employers, particularly those with constraints from customers or business needs but, with support from their marketing departments, they can get there.”

Flexible working must be on the agenda

In order to attract the top talent, large and small businesses will have to present flexible working as an option where reasonable. Liverpool FC certainly will not tell Mo Salah that he doesn’t have to play on Saturdays in any new contract talks, but every business would be wise to find out where they can meet employees needs without missing company objectives. Remember, in a motivated, refreshed workforce, the business objectives are greatly aided by employees who want to achieve them and know how to work towards that goal.

Though truly personal flexible working is a negotiation between employee needs and business realities, it is a negotiation that, ultimately, will benefit both parties. If Britain is going to solve its twin problems of presenteeism and productivity, businesses need to start these negotiations, and marketers have to be in the vanguard of that change.

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