Plenty of companies do a lot of great work when it comes to corporate social responsibility. And many companies are generous with their flexible and remote work policies. But very few see these two things as having much, if anything, to do with each other.
But flexible work isn’t just nice to have—it’s a vital part of using work to make the world a better place. In other words, social impact starts at home. And unless you treat your employees right, and take their work-life issues seriously, then everything else your CSR office does, however laudable, is just an add-on.
One reason why flexible work policies are so important to a social business is that it sends a message about how you view the world and your company's place within it.
Socially conscious businesses are about bridging what's good for the bottom line with what’s good for people. Human and environmental well-being don’t get sacrificed on the altar of the fast buck. Inflexible working arrangements came from a way of working—and a view of work—that saw people as little more than a resource for achieving business ends. It didn’t matter so much whether the pattern of work suited employees as long it suited the business.
By giving your employees the latitude to do their jobs in a way that suits their lifestyles, so long as they keep up their performance, companies show they they care about what’s good for their employees, not just themselves. And that sends a message extending into the wider world that you’re not putting money before people—that you believe that what’s good for people is also good for profits. If a company claims to pride itself on social responsibility, there's no better place to start.
It’s great to create socially responsible products and services, whether that’s fair trade coffee, environmentally sustainable technology, or financial services for the disadvantaged. But if your social responsibility is focused entirely on your customers, then you’re missing out on helping the people whose lives you most directly influence—your employees.
Flexible working practices are about making your employees' lives easier. Tasks important to their well-being, like visiting the doctor or dropping the kids off at school, become much less difficult to manage. This makes for employees who are happier, healthier, and less stressed. That's a worthy goal all by itself.
For this to work, you have to give employees genuine control of their hours. Calling it flexible isn’t enough if you set core hours, duties, or layers of approvals that give them no room to maneuver.
These policies can benefit your bottom line, too. An international survey by Vodafone, which questioned 8,000 employers and employees, found that 83% had seen improvements in productivity thanks to flexible working. In a similar survey of U.K. workers, twice as many found their productivity increased when working at least some of the time from home, compared to those who felt their productivity decreased.
One reason simply comes down to time management. If an employee can work while sitting at home waiting for a delivery or the plumber, then the flow of work won’t be disrupted. If they can attend a meeting through a conference call while looking after a sick child, that meeting doesn’t need to be postponed.
Flexible work also helps recruiters tap a wider talent pool. You can consider hiring employees who live further from your base of operations or whose lives wouldn’t allow them to work full time, whether due to health, childcare responsibilities, or other reasons.
In short, flexible work policies can help you employ the best people and get the most out of them—making it a socially conscious venture with business-conscious outcomes.
There are countless opportunities for people to volunteer in their communities. From food banks to charity shops to environmental improvements, volunteering helps to fill gaps left by the system—it's even been called one of the most overlooked job skills. Many people want to help out this way, they just can't find the time.
Businesses' CSR officers can step in and help. Flexible working allows employees to fit volunteer activities into their schedules. Some people might choose to work four days a week and volunteer on the fifth. Others might arrange their schedules to let them volunteer for a few hours each morning or take longer lunch breaks for an activity like reading in schools.
Typically, though, companies think too small and the allowances they make are too modest to let their employees feel a real difference. But flexible working can also allow whole groups of employees to take time off together to volunteer on a regular basis—as opposed to that being just a team-building exercise you do once a year. It can make volunteering, and the social good that it does, much more central to your business and the way it faces the world.
There are many different ways to make working patterns more flexible. Flex time can be used to let people shift their hours around. So can simply being more about scheduling. Allowing employees to buy extra holiday days or to get them as bonuses can likewise free up more time for much-needed vacations. Companies like Netflix and Hubspot use unlimited leave schemes, allowing employees to work in a way that suits them, focusing on results rather than time spent at a desk.
More than any other ambitious, high-minded initiative, flexible working is a simple way to be more socially responsible—yet it's one that so many companies overlook, or dismiss as a perk. But it can help set the tone for your business, and to give something back all while increasing productivity. What's not to like?