Decades ago Dolly Parton warned us that “workin’ nine to five is no way to make a livin”. Yet for all the rhetoric about flexibility, most businesses still value the “butts in seats” mentality of a full working day in the office.
Are we rusted on to tradition or is it possible to break out of the nine-to-five straitjacket and let staff work where they want, when they want?
Gilbert Rochecouste, managing director of creative placemaking consultancy Village Well, believes we can, saying flexibility is the key to happier, more motivated and more productive staff.
“Gone are the days of the micro-managing boss. It’s time to treat people as adults, and assign collective and personal responsibility,” Rouchecouste says.
Walking the talk, Rochecouste’s 10 staff all work negotiated part-time hours around other interests such as “pottery classes, art or family”. Working partly from home is de rigueur, with cloud technology facilitating central file access and meetings online.
Rather than set work hours, Rochecouste encourages a “piano accordion” model, where work hours ramp up during key projects, relaxing in between. Time in lieu is paid off in holidays, often equating to six to seven weeks a year.
It’s a system, he says, that is of “huge benefit” to both parties, so long as the flexibility cuts both ways.
“As long as everyone is in agreement that the work gets done, and there is a sense of collaborative mutual trust, and professionalism in regards to deadlines and quality of work, then it’s a win-win.”
Flexibility is not just about achieving a work-life balance, but is crucial for the creative brain of the business, Rouchecouste says.
“Our mission is to create visions for communities in the sustainable built form and you can’t do that in a controlled environment; creativity needs space.”
In contrast, says Rochecouste, are some of his clients.
“We work with large organisations trying to create new work environments, but all they focus on is the hardware: hot desks and the like. It’s the software that’s most important – empowering individuals to make decisions and supporting their wellbeing. That’s the key to inform output in the long run,” he says.
Matthew Dunstan experienced first-hand the advantage of loosening the nine-to-five model while a senior manager at Microsoft in the UK.
“Rather than a culture of ‘presenteeism’, Microsoft knew that people work better at different times of the day and gave total permission for that,” says Dunstan.
“Techy people are notorious night owls and it makes good business sense to play to people’s strengths rather than lock them into an imposed schedule.”
Cutting-edge technology that enabled ad hoc as well as planned team interactions was key to the success of the flexible work arrangements.
Leaving the corporate desk behind, Dunstan began mentoring other home-based entrepreneurs, mobile professionals and remote workers to collaborate and work in more creative ways.
Moving to Australia, Dunstan found the culture not nearly as accepting.
“It seems deeply ingrained in the Australian work culture a belief that if you’re not at your desk you’re not really working. It’s stifling.”
Exceptions to the rule, says Dunstan, are small start-ups that are nimble enough to embrace change.
Crowd Media HQ is one such creative agency that has ditched the nine-to-five dinosaur in favour of flexibility, says director Judy Sahay.
“I am a strong believer that our team is most creative when they are relaxed, so we don’t have hard-and-fast rules about what time they should start and finish and where they work,” Sahay says.
“If they want to take a week off and work from their holiday house, we’re fine with that – as long as the work gets done.”
Working from home, Sahay says, avoids time wasted in long commutes, and the distractions and stresses of the workplace.
Sahay is often at the computer shortly after 5am to get all the more important tasks done by 9am, and rather than clocking off Friday afternoon, responds to emails throughout the weekend on a needs basis.
“While this sometimes means more like a 13-hour day, it allows me to be flexible with my hours during the week,” she says.
“Same goes for staff. We need them to be accountable, responsible, reliable and able to work in a cohesive team and autonomously. The hours don’t really matter – it’s more about productivity and the best use of time.”