Every other weekend, Will Poole sits down at his home desk and gets to work. Not to catch up on the tasks left over from Friday – though the quiet time away from video calls and client visits allows him to focus on writing reports. Rather, he is taking advantage of the new flexible working arrangement from his employer Arup, the design and engineering company.
The approach enables all of Arup's 6,000 employees in the UK to spread their core work hours over seven days, rather than between Monday and Friday.
This means that Poole can take a day off to see his partner who works shifts in a care home. “We were ships in the night before,” says Poole, who leads Arup’s UK property and cities cost management team from the Midlands.
The new working practice – Work Unbound – was launched earlier this year. It followed three-month pilots in the company's offices in Queensland, Australia, and in Liverpool in 2019. More than a third (35 per cent) of the professionals involved in the experiments chose to do some weekend work.
Such flexibility puts control of hours into Poole’s hands, unlike his partner, whose shifts are unpredictable. It also means he can drop his children off at school.
On the day we speak, he has been working since 7.30am so that he can take the kids to the park when they finish. For Poole it has been a “game-changer”.
Pandemic lockdowns drove millions of workers across the world from the office to their homes, and spurred more flexible schedules as they juggled home-schooling, elder care and other responsibilities with their jobs. This dramatic shift has prompted many employers to experiment with working patterns.
It is impossible to return to old ways of working once employees have been given more freedom, says Andy Pennington, Liverpool office leader for Arup. During the pilots in 2019, senior executives were "conscious that in letting the genie out of the bottle", they would not be able to "put a stopper back in".
This is a lesson that is being learned by employers who try to return to a culture of office presenteeism: workers are resistant, one contributory factor to the Great Resignation.
"Most companies are currently overwhelmed by the choice of place [between home and the office]," says Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School. "Some are also realising that the choice of time can also bring real benefits. There is a crucial choice to be made – when can we disconnect from others – for example, to perform tasks that require us to really focus. That is the next big issue around the redesign of work."
Yet flexible hours also bring risks, notably an always-on culture. It may be harder to take a break if others are working, particularly when emails are on your mobile phone.
Diane Thornhill, Arup's human resources director for UK, Europe, Middle East and Africa, says work patterns have not altered dramatically but employees enjoy the autonomy. Nonetheless, it is not straightforward culture change. "Letting go of some of the past [behaviour] is a challenge, particularly at a leadership level," she says.
One aspect that was discussed at the start, says Pennington, was stopping the jibes about part-time workers or calling out “another half-day” as someone finished work.
Senior leaders also made sure their flexible work was visible. “I purposefully pushed the boundaries so others could see what was acceptable,” says Pennington. “I have three kids, I can leave at 3pm and do stuff with the family and then pick up [work] at eight or nine . . . We needed to show that if you chose to work in the evening or weekend, that was fine.”
The approach requires planning around workers’ and clients’ schedules, though Arup also asks that employees come into the office twice a week. “We had to be a lot more organised to orchestrate the week ahead,” says Pennington. Some teams sit down together at the start of the week and plan the days ahead, others share their electronic diaries.
“It helped to manage the concern that a deadline would fall just as everyone decided to take the Friday afternoon off together.” Transparency is a “habit” they have had to develop, he adds.
Alex Dunn, who works as a business assistant for Arup in the northwest and Yorkshire, tends to work between 7.30am and 4pm to focus before her team leaders come online. When it comes to scheduling, she says, people had to adapt to the idea that they were sharing their movements rather than being monitored. "People had to [learn] you weren't spying on each other," she says.
The approach also requires greater thought about which tasks require focus and which demand collaboration, says Stephen Fernandez, a director leading Arup's retrofit work based in the British midlands. "If I'm working at the weekend, I have to think how it impacts another person who might not want to . . . The pandemic was an eye-opener about how we can work separately and as a team."
“It requires a little bit more in terms of collaboration and to understand other people’s working patterns,” he adds, noting that his calendar looks like the video game Tetris.
Clarity about availability extends to clients too. Many employees work on several projects at a time, so clients do not expect immediate availability around the clock. Poole says he sends a note to clients warning that he is not working that day but will respond if the query is easy to deal with.
For now, most people are just adapting office hours. Pennington puts this down to an ingrained working culture. “In the past, you might have made an excuse. Now you say, I’m out with the kids at 4pm. It’s more tweaks around the edges of work-life balance, but those small tweaks can make a big difference.” Poole agrees: “People are conservative at the moment. It’s quite new.”
Priyanka Jain, who works in internal communications at Arup, uses the flexibility for a side hustle – a venture that delivers gift boxes and prompt cards to foster corporate teambuilding. Previously she would feel guilty about leaving the office to go to the post office to send packages to customers, but now she feels "freer". It is a "cultural shift", she says. "People are more interested in what [their peers] are doing outside work."
For Fernandez, sport is a priority so he blocks out time in his working day to go running and cycling. “Previously I’d go into the office and be sat in meetings all day. By the time I went out it was dark. It [exercise] really does help with my wellbeing. It helps me be productive.”
For Samantha Walsham, who works on Arup's change team, the new model has allowed her to spend time with her four- and five-year-olds. The fact that Unbound is a universal benefit helps curb parental guilt and division between parents and child-free workers.
“I used to watch mums leave the office for pick-ups or emergencies, there [was] a bit of eye-rolling and it used to spark an emotional reaction in me about how unfair that was,” Walsham says. “I knew those women still delivered. Now most people don’t even know [why you’re leaving] – you just say: ‘I’m unavailable.’”
Vera Ngosi-Sambrook, a mechanical engineer at Arup, says the new work practices have given younger professionals more autonomy.
“No one is watching me and I do feel a bit more responsible for my hours. I do feel more mature.” She believes there is a generational shift in pressing for flexibility. “You grow up [seeing] your parents working excess hours. I want to get a lot of things done at work but also live a fulfilling life.”
How the new working week will pan out in other parts of the world as the programme is rolled out globally is yet to be seen. “There will be cultural differences,” says Thornhill. “It will mean something different in Japan, it will mean something different in different countries in Europe. But we know people want more flexibility.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021