Flexibility for profitability

I wrote recently about the importance of senior management drawing on the experience of employees across the spectrum to make the most of their businesses. I’m a passionate believer that success in retail is a collective enterprise, with people at every level feeling engaged and having the opportunity to make a real contribution. Happy team members are more productive, more imaginative and more committed, and those kinds of intangible benefits are what give retailers a winning edge against their competitors.


The duty of care issue


It’s not just that employers will benefit from happy and healthy staff, but they have a social and corporate responsibility to look after the people they employ. People invest so much of themselves in their jobs, whatever it is they might do, that they have the right to be taken care of and accommodated.


Last year, the Wellcome Trust launched an inquiry into whether their employees would benefit from moving from a five-day to a four-day week as standard. Would it affect productivity and competitiveness, or could working differently allow people to live fuller and more enriched lives, ploughing some of that emotional investment back into their work? I was completely behind the idea of asking the question: I think that kind of disruptive instinct, of posing awkward questions and looking at familiar problems with fresh eyes, is exactly the sort of thing that we should be doing. It’s one of the keys to success, and as we all know, success is cumulative. If something works well for an enterprise, be it a business or a charity like Wellcome, then competitors will take up the idea and possibly even make it better; the whole sector ups its game, leading to improved service and sharper reactivity to consumers’ and workers’ needs. Everybody wins in the end. As they say, a rising tide lifts all boats.


Caution scuppers the drive for innovation


So it is with disappointment that I heard the Wellcome Trust had come back with a no. It was an understandable reaction to a radical idea, but one which focused on the potential problems, and, I thought, failed to look hard enough at the possibilities for improvement. Wellcome reported that employees were concerned at the prospect of their workload being compressed from five into four days, that part-time workers would find the change disruptive, and that the very act of changing over to a four-day week would distract the charity from its core function.


None of these is a convincing or decisive factor. The anecdotal evidence argues against them. They could have looked at Pursuit Marketing, in my home town of Glasgow, which switched to a four-day week and found that productivity rose by 30%, sickness leave is at an all-time low and recruitment is buoyant. I hope that other firms will break ranks and try this kind of innovative behaviour for themselves.


Valuing your people must be a priority


It’s part of a wider point that I keep coming back to. As a retailer, you want – or you should want – the very best staff you can hire, and you should want them to operate at the top of their game. That means removing obstacles to employing and promoting them, and making their work experience, which is so much of each of our lives, as attractive and accommodating as possible. So flexible working, whether it’s a four-day week, part-time employment, compressed hours or working from home, should be as widely available as possible. You want to rule out as few people as you can from doing any jobs within a firm, from working on the shop floor as the first responders, to sitting in the boardroom juggling profits and long-term strategy.


Flexibility means so much


There are a lot of reasons why flexible working might appeal to people. Maybe they’ve changed career and want to have a better work/life balance, so allowing them more leisure time appeals to them and keeps them motivated. They may have issues to do with childcare: there is a demographic bulge (excuse the pun) of female employees who are reaching a point in their lives where they might want to have children, but don’t want to write off their careers. Allowing them to take an innovative approach to working patterns might allow them to stay on board and continue to develop their professional skills and achievements, and they’ll come back stronger and more effective. Others may have difficult commutes that they don’t want to undertake every day, and so might welcome the opportunity to work from home at times.


What’s the effect of all this? Well, if you get it right, you’re making your firm more attractive to potential employees, and you might gain an edge in terms of productivity as well as staff wellbeing. It won’t suit everyone, and it won’t always be easy, but it comes back to the advice that I always give: innovate, question and be disruptive, and you might creep ahead. If you prosper, the whole sector prospers with you, and ultimately the customer benefits. And isn’t that what we all want?


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