Flexible Working; it’s a Team Sport
In April 2019, Flexible Service (FS) will introduce a pioneering method of allowing Armed Forces personnel to adjust their daily commitment to the Services or operational deployability with an accompanying and fair reduction to their remuneration package (pay & pension). Whilst for some this policy change will represent a long-awaited opportunity to make significant changes to their working life, for others there remains a strong demand for other ways in which to strike that fine balance between work and life. Thankfully, through a very different variety of RAF policies, Flexible Working is available for all RAF personnel to assist in adjusting the working week without taking a hit on the annual salary. In other words, you can think of Flexible Service (FS) as working less for less, and think of Flexible Working (FW) as working the same but differently, and that ‘differently’ is on your terms.
The RAF’s formula for Flexible Working has been enabled by holding people at the very core of what we do, and resulting in policies that are competitive, or often better than civilian equivalents – proven by having recently scooped three titles at the Families’ Best Practice Awards 2018.
“Why on earth would anyone run a company that was hard to work for?” Yvon Chouinard – founder of Patagonia and Black Diamond, business philosopher and author of Let My People Go Surfing.
Why Flexible Working?
70% of the Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey 2018 respondents indicated that as a result of serving they experienced an adverse impact on their family and personal life, which was subsequently increasing their intention to leave. This situation is exacerbated by a strong financial climate with a high prospect of civilian employment in private sector companies, which have remoulded their business models to embrace flexible working and are subsequently reporting increases in workforce productivity(1). Moreover, research has proven that high work-life conflict is associated with work stress, turnover intentions, actual turnover, and poor health; whereas lower conflict is associated with greater job satisfaction, organisational commitment, job performance and organisational citizenship behaviours. Simply put, it is in our interests to minimise work-life conflict where possible. Organisations can mitigate against work-life conflict through offering family-friendly policies such as flexible working practices. Wielding such a strong case, it is clear that the RAF must ingrain Flexible Working into the fabric of the organisation and support personnel wishing to undertake a different working pattern wherever feasible. With this in mind, it is easy to see how beneficial flexible working can be for both the individual and the Service.
The Commanding Officer ’s Challenge and Cultural Change
With ever present fast paced and dynamic operational demands the RAF, above all, must be prepared to meet its operational commitments. Historically the Services modus operandi in reactively dealing with tasks as they arise has necessitated having an abundance of personnel on-hand for immediate use, thereby limiting the amount of flexibility that our people can incorporate into their working days. Whilst in many situations this approach to work is unavoidable, the section/flight/squadron/wing commanders’ challenge in enabling flexible working is to disassociate the physical presence of people with their traditional place of work by becoming masters of the technology at our disposal to maintain the type of contact that they would expect if/when they shared a hangar or an office. Skype, VTC, and mobile phones are all useful tools for contacting flexible working subordinates, and ideally as a matter of routine rather than in necessity. Frequent contact via these means can suffice to be assured that the task in question is in hand, whilst also ensuring that the subordinate feels that they are still responsible, valued, and part of the team despite working remotely, from home, or at a different time of day.
These managerial behaviours if repeated to the point of becoming the norm can helpfully subside the comfort blanket of having people constantly present whilst also building the flexibility of people’s lives into the success of the Team. To aid our progress in this regard we can learn a great deal from observing the results of businesses such as Patagonia, who’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, ingrained Flexible Working into the fabric of his company: “Our policy has always allowed employees to work flexible hours, as long as the work gets done with no negative impacts on others. Employees take advantage of this policy to catch a good swell, or go bouldering for an afternoon, pursue an education, or get home in time to greet the kids when they climb down from the school bus.”
The subsequent affect of such managerial practice undoubtedly provides the foundations for organisational change towards working culture, which at present, in the RAF, is often reliant upon ‘presenteeism’ that can lead to people in positions of responsibility to frown upon those daring to want anything but the Monday to Friday 0800 – 1700 Station- based working pattern. For this reason, it is perhaps unsurprising that when confronting a particular cohort of mid-level commanders about their approach to Flexible Working applications, that their responses included ‘If I allow one person to have Flexible Working everyone will want it…’ and ‘it’s not the Services fault that they own a house in the South of England, why should they have compressed hours to travel home early on a Friday…’ Both of which are evidently saddening attitudes to come across, that will in some cases result in personnel choosing to leave the Service – a mistake that the Service’s recruitment and selection process will struggle to offset. Striving to change the way in which we all think about where the working environment exists is one method of tackling these antiquated approaches for positive affect, and by that; I mean recognising that work can include home, or a café, or a park, or occupy a different space in time to that which we usually associate with ‘normal working hours’.
In comparison, the more tangible barriers to Flexible Working, such as a lack of laptops or the need to be co-located with equipment (aircraft), whilst can be equally as preventative as negative attitudes, are perhaps more tolerable. Due to the structural nature of the Service; in that the majority of us are posted every few years, it’s possible that where Flexible Working cannot work in one posting there are opportunities to be posted into a position where the physical constraints to Flexible Working are not as equally prevalent. However, to monopolise such opportunities, and changes in circumstances (including increasing IT availability) the default position of the leadership must be geared towards facilitating Flexible Working applications rather than saying ‘no’, because after all, culture trumps policy. Often this involves taking some risk, trying some new methods of working, and making tough decisions; but of course we can do that, right? That’s why we have been employed as military leaders…?
Who Is It For and What’s on Offer?
So, who is it for and what’s on offer? Whilst it is recognised that the uptake of Flexible Working is often centred around childcare arrangements and travelling to and from home, really anyone can use it. Whether you look after an elderly relative, or simply want to tailor your working day around a hobby or sport, Flexible Working is here to help. To be clear, Flexible Working in the strictest sense differs from ad-hoc arrangements that I would defined as nipping to the garage to drop your car off for a service, or finishing early on the odd occasion to hit the road. Such examples can often be easily granted without a need to record the short absence from the workplace, where as Flexible Working arrangements are long-standing agreements between you and your CoC that are registered and reviewed on JPA(2). Though it is not a right to be permitted to adopt a Flexible Working arrangement, every CoC is obliged to assist where possible. In particular circumstances, it might be that your full request cannot be met, but a partial solution can be sought. The key to making any arrangement work is good communication and a bit of flexibility between both the Chain of Command and the Service person.
In terms of what’s on offer, there are three main types of Flexible Working, which are defined as; working Compressed Hours, Variable Start/Finish Times, and (or anywhere else for that matter). Here’s a quick introduction to each:
Compressed Hours essentially means into fewer days, in order to reduce the number of hours worked on another day(s), often to have a longer weekend. A Full-Time Reserve Service Squadron Leader at RAF Wittering who works Compressed Hours said: ‘Prior to FW, because of the relentless nature and variety of tasks coming into my office, coupled with persistent manpower shortages, I was working over 50+ hours per week with the expectation from an external organisation that I would always be available to resolve issues. I was getting home on a Friday evening in a zombie- like state; often requiring the whole weekend to recover to merely start again on Monday; which gave me no proper family or leisure time. FW allows me to concentrate and package my work into 4 days (Mon-Thurs) allowing tasks to be completed but provides additional time to recuperate and enjoy weekends with my family. My overall health has benefitted noticeably in the short period I have been on FW.’
Variable Start/Finish Times is a great method of taking your working day when you like it. So instead of working normal working hours (normally 0800 – 1700 on most stations); for example you might start at 0630 and finish 1530, or start at 1000 on Mondays and finish at 1900, then on Friday start at 0600 to finish 1500 to help you have a less stressful commute to and from home at the weekend. A Senior Aircraftman based at RAF Wittering who enjoys Variable Start/ Finish Times, informed us that ‘as a result of the MOD providing myself with flexible working arrangements, I have been able to help support my family with collecting my kids from school/ nursery’s and taking them to Gymnastics’, all in support for my wife enabling her to attend staff meetings at work. Having the chance to support my family with flexible working patterns has helped free up our busy lives. I highly recommended to anyone who has kids and or a busy working life style to look into flexible working.” In addition, a Squadron Leader who works Variable Start/Finish Times at RAF High Wycombe and other add-hoc arrangements said that ‘starting work earlier than the Headquarters normal working hours is fantastic, it means I can finish work early to beat the busy Buckinghamshire commute to my SFA quarter some distance away and get to my evening class on time. I am also lucky enough to have a work phone and use of the Team’s laptop for the odd occasion that I need to work from home. Having such flexibility means that Serving in the RAF is part of my life, rather than it being my life in total.’
Working From Home, working from home really means working anywhere remotely; a wifi hotspot, your home, or another military establishment that is perhaps a bit closer to your house, it really doesn’t matter so long as the venue is safe(3) and applicable to your work’s security requirements. In this instance, more often than not, you may require access to MODNet or the IT system that you are familiar with at work. Where it’s not always easy to acquire a MODNet laptop from your unit, you can use your own IT to access the MOD Dropbox via the Defence Gateway, which will allow you to work on documents remotely. Alternatively, if the classification of your work allows, you could take printed material with you to read, which of course depends largely on the type of work you undertake. A Corporal working in Personnel Services Flight at RAF Honington said that ‘working two days from home has been enabled me to achieve a new work-life balance, I am back to my best self. I feel a new lease of life; the long mid-week travel home and back to support my young and growing family has been reduced. My output has seen a resourceful increase both at home, at work and with my MSc studies. I feel valued, empowered and reinvigorated to progress with my career without the worry of family instability.’
Flight Lieutenant Merlin Andrew
HQ Air Employment Policy
(1) 80% of Ministry of Justice staff no feel supported to work flexibly, 93% of Lloyds roles are advertised as flexible, and Pursuit Marketing work a 4 day week with no impact on salary or benefits at an increased productivity rate of 30%. Working families Awards 2018 Programme.
(2) Registering the arrangement on JPA is an important part of the policy building process and proving its success, where it allows HQ Air to monitor the uptake and conduct trend analysis – there’s no point having a policy that no one uses!
(3) Both Health and Safety and Security requirements must be properly assessed and considered.
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