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In Praise of Start-Ups; Does Flexibility Scale?

Start-ups have a reputation for being flexible and agile but is that scalable as they mature? Jane Fordham, people, culture and equality consultant, shares her views and experiences of organisations getting this right.

Workplace design and build start-up, Cirkularis8, has recently worked with 2to3days to find a CRM Manager. Out of a current headcount of 12, this hire will be the fourth flexible worker in the firm including the founder, Kristoff Dubose. The whole team, work hard to support near vertical growth but recognise that being outcome focussed is far more effective in terms of working patterns and job design. This is the second recruitment brief for them which has openly targeted the female, returner or parental talent pool. Why? Well they understand this means accessing a wider pool of experienced talent and reaping the rewards of super-engaged, motivated staff who feel trusted and empowered to work in a way that suits all parts of their lives.

Political advisory firm, Hanbury Strategy currently has a 7-month maternity cover contract in place for the ‘Head of People and Culture’ role. In order to get the level of experience the agency wanted, they were happy to offer the contract 2-days a week. Hanbury, recently celebrated its 3rd birthday, and is on track for a second year of 50% growth. In fact most of the Ops team work flexibly, and they’ve got form supporting team members to launch start-ups of their own and service portfolio careers through flexible job design. Hanbury has also been increasing headcount significantly recently to support their growth, and have added the following statement to job ads;

“As part of our commitment to equal opportunities we are open to discussions about alternative working patterns or hours. “

So, these two firms, both experiencing significant growth, are attracting stellar talent and earning enviable reputations within their fields for doing things differently. Thinking about the wider universe of UK employers, of larger, more established companies and the oft-quoted barriers to flexible working, will these start-ups take these recruitment practices along on the journey of organisational maturity? Or, will they be deemed unfit for purpose as the businesses scale? Arguably, there are lots of reasons to feel optimistic;

  1. Millennials are fast becoming the dominant generation of our labour market, with Gen-Z hot on their heels. We know anecdotally and through labour market data, that flexibility is often the most important thing in evaluating career choices. And let’s face it, these start-ups are usually founded and run by these age groups.
  2. What’s more, older millennials and younger Gen Y people want and need an alternative to office-based, 9-5s because of myriad caring responsibilities or simply due to free will.
  3. Notwithstanding a few of the looming macro and political uncertainties, there is a talent and skills shortage in the UK so effectively, the companies that want to win the war for talent (attraction and recruitment), MUST be on board and stay on board with alternative job design.

Now that we’ve celebrated start-ups for their typically enlightened view of job design, let’s consider how large, well-established corporates also turn the juggernaut effectively to embrace flexibility. Naturally, any change that requires a shift in culture and processes isn’t quick nor easy but given the talent landscape as outlined above, major corporations like PwC prove it is possible to run global businesses around principle of employee experience, putting humans first. Their employer brand and performance are reaping the benefits of strategies like allowing UK employees to effectively shape their own working patterns. Those giants that don’t take this seriously will find that a lack of candidates and/or a disengaged workforce will turn into a business limiting factor.

Recent research from Timewise showed that 87% of the working population either work flexibly already or want to. With only 15% of job adverts offering flexibility, there just aren’t enough flexible jobs to go around. Businesses are completely underestimating how important flexibility is to the people who work for them and putting off others from joining them.

To fully explore best practice from those more enlightened employers out there is beyond the wordcount limit however, those organisations well on the way here, have a few things in common, such as;

  • Buy-in from the top - beyond lip service, actually role modelling alternative approaches to job design and shouting about it e.g. the PepsiCo CEO for Australia and New Zealand, Robbert Rietbroek, who ‘leaves loudly’ when he heads out at 4pm to pick-up his children
  • Insights and engagement – track data on team profiles, working practices and corresponding engagement levels. What’s working, what’s not. Keep iterating. Ensure that there are ample opportunities for two-way dialogue and for leaders to show that they ‘listen to act’
  • HR leadership - a motivated and mobilised people team to drive lasting process and behavioural change. Flexibility shouldn’t be viewed as an ‘HR thing’ however to truly establish a new mindset the HR team will be vital facilitators
  • Line managers – appropriately trained and well-equipped line managers will make these new working practices work day-to-day. Check out the 2to3days Line Managers' Guide to Managing Flexible Teams

Jane’s clients energy giant, SGN, and UK technology leader, Arm, are well on the way to turning the juggernaut. If they can, then their smaller corporate peers and start-ups, have no excuse not to embrace working practices fit for the 21st century to transform the working experience of their people and, drive business performance.

About the Author; Jane Fordham, Founder Jane Fordham Consulting

After 18 years working in PR agencies, Jane set-up a consultancy focussed on people, culture and equality in March 2018. Perhaps not surprisingly as an entrepreneur, flexibility is a key enabling force in her life. As Jane explains, “I reframe ‘work-life balance’ as work-life integration or a coexistence which means that both parts of my life flex around each other day-to-day, week-by-week according to the needs of each.” This mindset is brought to life in her email signature;

 “I work flexible hours, fitting life and business around each other. Don’t be alarmed if I email outside office hours and please only reply during your own working day. Thanks!”