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“flexible working enables a healthy work-life balance, a more dynamic and happier workforce with a greater likelihood of staying within the organisation” 1
What? Flexible working is full-time employment and normal output, delivered differently. Flexible service is part-time employment and/ or reduced pay for restricted duties and not deploying. 2 The MoD introduced alternative ways of working and flexible options in April 2019, nearly 2 decades after the labour government introduced flexible working in the UK.
So what? The military have had a degree of flexibility for years; early finishes on a Friday, and Wednesday afternoons for sport, but these have never been available to all, always informal, only available if driven by the leadership, and a dwindling privilege as work demands creep up. We also get a generous annual leave entitlement but, taking a day of leave every week is not the solution. In practice, any flexible working arrangements are dependent on each unit’s ability to maintain operational capability and the operational demands of the individual’s trade or specialisation. Therefore, not all jobs can have flexible working arrangements and these arrangements are decided, formally or informally, by an individual’s chain of command on a case by case basis, 3 requiring a good reason to adopt them in the first place. What is a good reason? Children? Elderly relatives? A long weekend commute? Your golf handicap? And how do those who don’t have a good enough reason feel about flexible working? The result is often the default answer is no. Let me explain why this is true.
Until recently, working from home was only available to the privileged few who had a reason considered good enough, access to work IT or a work phone, and they took the ‘hit’ for not being visible for a day here or there. The idea of dialling into a meeting from your own home was an alien concept and is still difficult to facilitate. Any agreement for part-time working is done in days; each day equates to 20% work, pay, leave entitlement and pension, therefore 100% is seen as a 5-day week. The issue with this is that we don’t have contracted working hours. Resulting in 80% (or less) pay for delivering 100% work as little is done to mitigate flexible options by redesigning jobs or managing expectations of output especially considering any use of flexible service is time limited. Not having defined hours also makes compressed hours difficult as you are effectively working compressed days, but does that mean you have to turn out the lights and lock up on your longer days? The military experience is as a team, and people struggle if they cannot see the whole team, the same people don’t realise that flexible working means everyone needs to have a flexible attitude. These are some of the reasons flexible working is not used or causes conflict.4 Those who battle it out must come up with their own solutions, work intensively to overcompensate for their reduced face time, and perceived output and then burn out.5 It is well documented that organisations often offer flexible working but fail to redesign the jobs and organisational structure and fail to facilitate and accommodate their own policies. Resulting in an unhealthy appetite for uptake and a negative culture towards those who do.6
Most people, workaholics aside, are seeking a good work-life balance and healthy work practices. Flexible working is not about doing less. Estimates suggest that 63% of the working population in the UK already have some flexibility in their work routine, and 87% of workers want more.7 So the introduction of flexible working policies in the MoD should have meant the majority of personnel queueing up to adopt it – shouldn’t it? Or is the dwindling privileged amount of flexibility enough for us in uniform? The adoption rate for alternative ways of working is slowly creeping up, but it does not match the UK population and recent figures show that two thirds of service personnel were not satisfied with their opportunity to work flexibly.8 Why not?
Policy acceptance by all is essential for people to adopt it, this is a challenge where policies are new, as it requires drive from leadership due to an organisational cultural change. In 2008 it was reported that 46% of service personnel saw a request for flexible working arrangements as “an excuse to shirk off responsibilities”.9 In an organisation such as ours where there is a mixture of working practices, emphasizing that the number of working hours or time spent in the office does not directly correlate to output or performance is key for cultural acceptance. Presenteeism is a common cultural problem especially if those at the top are seen to be workaholics, this unhealthy behaviour is deep-rooted as it is the well-trodden path to promotion. Perceived career damage, or reduced promotion prospects are common reasons for poor uptake of flexible work arrangements outside of the military,10 does the same apply within the military? Without leadership support the use of, or request for, flexible working can be difficult and most of our leadership are perceived workaholics, with unappealing lifestyles or work-life balances. CIPD 2012 showed that 60% of managers did not use flexible working policies.11 Change is afoot as more units are publishing their Ways of Working; a modern way for the leadership to offer flexibility. Although saying you are flexible is different to being flexible and suggesting a late start on Monday mornings or no meetings on Friday afternoons is obviously meant with good intentions, but it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. This perceived flexibility could do more damage than good as why would you need to ask for more flexibility and alternative ways of working when you’ve had the unit’s ways of working inflicted upon you? And who does this benefit as the majority of RAF personnel do not have a weekend commute?12 If we can truly give 100% output in less than 5 days, let people pick the hours they work that best suit them. Isn’t that a positive about not having contracted hours?
Eurostat (2005) defines full-time work as 30 hours or more and the UK average working week (one of the highest in Europe) is 42.7 hours.13 However, the Armed Forces average working week is 43.8 hours, senior officers clock in at 50.5 hours, and 26% of senior officers do more than 70 hours a week!14 Are they workaholics or do we have an increasing imbalance of our workloads? If our jobs are not human sized to start- how can we accommodate our own flexible working policies?
What next? COVID19 has open our eyes to the flexible possibilities and started to break down negative cultural blockers. As I said, change is afoot and we need to take advantage of this before the Mon-Fri, lots of face, no sport, no lunch, no life, bad habits creep back in. Post COVID19 needs to be flexible for everyone.
The statistics above highlight that what is acceptable in output is not acceptable in hours worked. We must address what is perceived as an acceptable working week, and this needs to be defined as average hours for guidance. We are not clocking in and out (and no-one expects overtime), but a healthy and open approach to this is needed to set a benchmark to which we can apply flexibility. This will help highlight people and practices that are inefficient, cumbersome, and slow. Also, workloads and expectations that are too high, and help to challenge anyone or anything that asks or gives an unhealthy amount. The organisation as a whole needs to redesign jobs so that alternative ways of working and flexible service can be accommodated by human sized roles. Jobs safeguarded for operational need and output are an essential fact of military life but, should be the exception not the rule and those roles requiring over, and above recommended working hours should be advertised as such. Give people the choice to have flexibility but also question why they wouldn’t want it so that bad habits are kept at bay.
Units need plans and process for how they offer flexible working and or service. Jobs and departments that offer compressed or flexible hours should be advertised and published by career managers and trade sponsors offering people an informed choice when they move to a new role rather than a battle when they arrive and have to ask (with fingers crossed) for something that has not been thought through. Most operational stations work some form of extended hours or weekend working so shift work is not uncommon – take advantage of this as a flexible working opportunity for the whole unit. Station “Ways of Working” could reflect the flexibility of flexible policies and their adoption not a “uniform” one size fits no-one approach. Routine meetings need to be facilitated to be virtual, cutting down on travel time, and increasing attendance if people can dial in from wherever. Be conscious of anti-social hours, and what your personnel are committing to. Provide the equipment and tools needed for those wanting to work remotely, both at home and connectivity to the unit, accessible to all who need or want it. Also provide social support, good communication, and manage the external pressures, and expectations. The answer can still be no, but for a good reason.
What could good look like? Our leadership need to use, encourage and promote alternative ways of working and support flexible working policies. We have our first “green” stations, let’s have “flexible” ones too. Not only this but the cultural acceptance that flexibility for the team will affect your way of working regardless of the hours you keep and where you keep them and that this is not a bad thing. These policies are for all, not just those with care responsibilities, far from it. If 63% of the UK population work flexibly – let’s aim for that amount of service personnel using flexible policies. Why do we need a “good” reason to work flexibly if it is not affecting our output or performance? It will make us more accepting, may even make us more productive, better at our jobs, and happier! It is well documented that flexible working can enhance performance,15 increase output and retention (bonus for the MoD) and offer people a sustainable work-life balance, isn’t this where we started and what the policy is intended for? We can achieve “good”, we just need to be flexible.
Sqn Ldr Vikki MacBrayne BSc RAF
Vikki has served 17 years in the RAF serving in Air, Joint, and NATO Headquarters, she currently works in the Ministry of Defence in the Air Staff. She is studying for a masters in Leadership and Management with the University of Portsmouth focusing on the work-life balance achieved by working mothers in the RAF. She is an Army wife and mother of two toddlers. Since COVID lockdown Vikki has been working from home full-time.
- Ministry of Defence (2019). Flexible Working and You, A guide for Service Personnel: Issue 3- January 2019.
- JSP 750
- JSP 750
- The Modern Families Index 2019
- Young, Z. (2018). Women’s work: How mothers manage flexible working in careers and family life
- Young, Z. (2018). Women’s work: How mothers manage flexible working in careers and family life
- Timewise (2017) Flexible working: the talent imperative.
- UK Regular Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey Results 2020.
- Dietmann, A., & Brown, V. (2008). Flexible working arrangements survey. DASA: Technical Report for Defence Analytical Service Agency.
- Armstrong, M., & Taylor, S. (2017). Armstrong’s Handbook of Human Resource Management Practice (14th ed.). London: CIPD Kogan Page.
- Chartered Institute of Personnel Development bi-annual flexible working survey 2012
- RAF Occupational Well-being survey 2017.
- Office for National Statistics (2011): Hours worked in the labour market.
- Armed Forces continuous working patterns survey Aug 2019.
- Bond, S., Hyman, J., Summers, J. & Wise, S. (2002). Family-friendly working? Putting policy into practice. Bristol: The policy Press/Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Family and Work Series.