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17th Jan 2023
Amerie Jackson MAIPM, Project Manager at Arup and Matt Pelling, Assistant Project Manager at Arup
As flexible working remains a standard employment benefit within our organisations, project managers should consider and mitigate the associated risks to ensure the benefits of flexible working outweigh the risks, say Amerie Jackson MAIPM and Matt Pelling from Arup.
Working from home became the norm throughout the pandemic for many project managers. For projects that can be completed online, it was proven that project outcomes can be successfully maintained without face-to-face interaction. Paired with the benefits to employees, flexible working has now become a standard practice in many organisations.
The freedom of the online workspace affords many benefits to projects and teams, however flexible working comes with unique risks that need to be considered. This article will focus on adapting our approach to project planning and delivery to ensure flexible working does not result in unforeseen adverse outcomes.
Flexible working differs from hybrid working, which solely refers to the location of work (e.g., agreed days at home and the office). It encompasses a range of changes to the traditional working model by allowing agreements for changes in the hours, location, and time that an employee works. This may include working compressed hours (38 hours in 4 days), job-sharing and flexible hours of work (split-shifts).
Research undertaken by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) in 2021 found that 94% of organisations with 5,000 or more employees reported that they have formalised their flexible working policy.
A key finding from the WGEA publication Flexible work post-COVID is that while women continue to face additional challenges balancing unpaid care work and paid employment, the flexible working model can promote greater equality at home and in the workplace. With widespread access to flexible working arrangements, organisations can challenge gender norms, increase female participation in the workforce and positively impact the health and wellbeing of employees.
Despite the many benefits of flexible working arrangements there are also associated risks to consider in our project planning. The fluidity of hours can impact how we deliver, plan, and respond to change. Controlled appropriately, project managers can harness the benefits of flexible working and mitigate the risks.
Each project has unique challenges and requirements. For the purposes of this article, a SWOT analysis has been created to spur thinking (on the next page). It is general in nature, and therefore a deeper dive of the impacts of flexible working would be required for your own projects in order to mitigate the potential risks. Certainly, there are projects that flexible working is simply not an option (e.g., onsite requirement), and these projects have been excluded from this example.
Further to gender equality benefits, flexible working can have a number of other positive project outcomes. Opportunities will require action to ensure they are realised but could result in significant benefits. Outcomes can include:
There are a number of potential risks of flexible working with potential for negative consequences to a project. Following the identification of these risks, assessment can be made to understand the impact to the project. The risks include:
As project managers, planning and control is part of our everyday role. While a standard list of controls has been provided below, it is important to ensure the control methods implemented are in line with the project needs. The impact of flexible working on our projects should be considered at inception for inclusion into project management plans, and as required at later stages. Potential project controls could include:
The project management specialism is unique in that communication and relationship-building is a large factor of success and often dictates our ability to drive progress.
We should not lose sight of the benefits of face-to-face interactions. There is so much we can learn via observation that is missed online. Our ‘dial-in’ workplaces struggle to replace non-verbal communication and opportunities to overhear our colleagues. What projects are we missing out on? What learning opportunities are missed? Or simply, who is being missed?
It’s evident that flexible working rewards our workplaces with many benefits, and ultimately, the model is here to stay. As project leaders, we can harness flexible working as a tool for positive outcomes and hopefully, drive adaptation for the benefit of everyone.
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