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Managers need to give employees more flexible working options, says HR expert

23 October 2020

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Organisation leaders need to challenge traditional mindsets and give their employees more choice around ‘when, where and how they work’, as this can help them improve productivity and achieve a better work-life balance, a human resources specialist has said.

Speaking at the Management in Practice virtual festival today (23 October), Gary Cookson, Epic HR director, said the main barrier to achieving these benefits has been imposition from above.

‘I think work is not somewhere you go, and it doesn’t really matter where you do it or when you do it. What matters is what’s produced at the end of it, but not enough leaders have had that mindset,’ he added. 

In his talk about ways to enhance the working environment, particularly during Covid-19, Mr Cookson said leaders should instead strive to give employees the ‘perfect day as often as they want’ and protect their mental wellbeing, which can be achieved by addressing a few prominent workplace issues. 

Work-life balance

Mr Cookson pointed to a report which shows that employees aged between 35 and 54 are more likely to struggle with stress and unhappiness at work.   

He said: ‘This age group represents the majority of our workforce, and it’s at that age that loads of different factors start to combine to make life a little bit more complicated, including parenthood and elder care together, mortgage debt, marriage, divorce, and for lots of people, a realisation their health is slowly declining.

‘So, work life balance is crucially important now for the vast majority of the UK workforce. If we can help them with working flexibly and unplugging after work, then that is a good thing. Also, employees who work more flexibly tend to be more efficient than those who work in a very rigid way.’

Mr Cookson added that workplace leaders can help achieve this by accommodating employee needs and allowing them to ‘seamlessly’ balance work and life.  

He said: ‘If somebody wants to take half-an-hour off to do the school run, or to get out for a walk or run part way through the day, or to do some housework, and then log in a bit later on and catch up, what does it really matter, as long as the work is done?

‘If they want to work during an evening or weekend, let’s see that as a personal choice. Let’s not encourage it or expect it, but inform them they can choose to if they wish. Everybody’s perception of work-life balance is different, and with remote working, that has become more apparent.’

Remote working 

Mr Cookson went on to say that with remote working a new reality for some in the healthcare sector – although not a possibility for everyone – many might be struggling with the sense of isolation and loneliness.

He added: ‘Regular human interaction is really easy to take for granted until it’s gone. Socialising and being around other people is key to being a human being, and has an impact on our psychological and physical health.

‘When working remotely, you miss the random conversations that take place as you’re walking through the corridor or when boiling the kettle, and that is restricted when having formal meetings over Zoom or Microsoft Teams.’

He encouraged practice managers, and other health leaders, to be aware of this and to do whatever they can to socially engage with people who work remotely.  

It is important to have a ‘feeling of family’ at work, both at a physical office and when working remotely, Mr Cookson said.

This applies to everybody – use informal ways of communicating, such as social media, to create that feeling of family and show that you care for each other.’

‘I do a lot of executive coaching, and they often come to me and they say they don’t have a great relationship with the people who report to them. 

‘I say, well, do you know the name of their husband, wife or children, or the biggest thing that’s worrying them in their personal life at the moment? And if you don’t know the answer to those things, go away and find out. Because that’s how you build those relationships. 

‘And the way you go find out is not to go to them with a checklist and say, ‘I’ve got some questions to ask you’. You talk to them. You have decades of training as a human being, and this is where that comes to the fore. So, you have to have empathy and high levels of emotional intelligence, even more so now.’