A few weeks ago I read an article about Red Frog, an Events Management company that gave its employees unlimited holidays. Employees at Red Frog are encouraged to take as much holiday as they want as long as they make sure their work gets done and they are covered while they are away. According to founder Joe Reynolds the system is never abused and has a significant impact on both staff personal development and productivity.
The article got me thinking about the other aspects of office based working that we seem to accept without question. The vast majority of office workers still commute to their place of work from Monday to Friday and are generally expected to be there for at least 8 hours between 8am and 6pm with the norm being 9am-5pm. And most of us still get 4-5 weeks holiday a year and have to get approval from a manager before we can use this time.
Why is this? The ‘9 to 5’ culture is a relic of the early 20th century. It pre-dates all the technological advancements that we have at our disposal today; the Internet, e-mail, messaging, video conferencing, and mobile to name just a handful of technologies that have had a fundamental impact on our lives and society as a whole. Technology has changed the way office jobs are performed. It has introduced completely new jobs and made others redundant. But we still mainly perform these changed and new jobs in shared offices between 9am and 5pm.
It also ignores a basic fact about human beings: we are all different; we work in different ways, with different working patterns and styles. Yet we are still expected to work in the same way, in shared environments and over the same hours. And this is despite evidence demonstrating that the 9 to 5 culture has a negative impact on productivity. Research released recently by 2e2, an ICT services company, revealed that 63% of UK office workers feel restrained by 9 to 5 working whilst 55% said that they were more productive when working from home as opposed to in the office.
The 2e2 study also looked at the impact on productivity of commuting to the office. It showed that transport problems cause 1.5 days to be lost per UK worker each year, costing £1.2bn in lost productivity. And the impact this has on workers in terms of stress and tiredness is resulting in further productivity losses of just over £1bn. That’s a total loss of £2.2bn to the UK economy as a result of transport related problems in the daily commute. But what if we didn’t have to travel to work as much as we currently do?
Think about the reduction in congestion and carbon emissions if we allowed that 55% to work from home whenever they wanted. Or how about the reduction in overcrowding on public transport if we allowed people to come to work at the times that suited them? How much would seemingly simple changes such as these reduce the £2.2bn productivity loss? There many other potential benefits as well. For example, couples with children could reduce childcare costs by staggering their working days. Flexible working hours could also allow more parents to work.
So what’s stopping the revolution in working practices? Why aren’t we exploiting the technology to transform where and when we work? It’s a question of trust. At Red Frog they believe in treating their employees like the adults they are. Unfortunately, the vast majority of employers just do not trust their employees to manage their own time. Unlike Red Frog most organisations fear that self-management will lead to chaos, that staff will abuse the system by working shorter hours causing them to miss deadlines or produce sub-standard work. Yet the evidence demonstrates that if anything the opposite is likely to happen; people are more productive if they are able to self-manage their working time and their time off.
It’s also a weakness of many managers that they would prefer to see their staff sitting at their desks from 9 to 5 day instead of allowing them to work elsewhere and at times that suit the individual. But this style of management will have to change or companies will fail to attract or retain the next generation of workers that has grown up using technology, they are used to always being connected and always being able to communicate and work wherever and whenever they wish.
Of course self-management needs to be implemented carefully and total flexibility will not always be possible with some roles or in some organisations. It’s a question of finding the right balance. But it’s the teams themselves and not managers that are best placed to find that balance.
Red Frog believes its unlimited holiday policy is a great recruitment tool as well as way of boosting producuvity. Companies that want to survive and succeed should follow Red Frog’s lead and start trusting their staff.