Why isn’t the events industry fully embracing flexible working options?

Kevin Hosier

In a recent FlexJobs report, 80% of respondents said that they believed they would be more loyal to their employers if they had flexible working options. 73% listed work/life balance as one of the most important factors they consider when evaluating a job prospect, ranking well above other benefits – including holiday allowance.

GCN Talent caught up with Vanessa Lovatt who has been a Managing Director of both live events and B2B digital media businesses and who is an active promoter of flexible working and gender diversity. She recently founded Time 4 Equality to encourage more male leaders to share their thoughts and opinions on why driving gender equality in the workplace is vital to the future of work. She speaks at ‘Women In…’ and Flexible Working conferences and has recently attended UK Parliament for a discussion on Maternal Mental Health and flexible working.

 


 

Why, in your experience, might an employee ask to work flexibly?

I have seen many different reasons given. Examples that stand out include somebody who wanted to be able to spend more time with a lonely parent in ill health; another because an individual wanted to spend more time with a sibling who had mental health issues; and one which I thought was amazingly honest from somebody who wanted to spend more time writing a book. I’ve also seen many flexible working requests to help reduce the time and cost spent commuting.

There’s a long-standing assumption that flexible working is ‘a mummy issue’ – but the undeniable reality is that flexible working is for everybody, for a wide and wonderful variety of very valid reasons.

 

What do you regard as the benefits to a business of a flexible working policy – and why should events companies consider implementing one?

There are many benefits that fall into these principle areas; all of which are intrinsically linked:

Talent: If your business can take bold steps to make a job work in 4 days instead of 5, or can enable somebody to work remotely, then you will instantly widen your available talent pool. You may also find that talent is more flexible in their requirements than office-based employees. I have seen people take a pay cut for greater flexibility. It goes without saying that companies should always pay fairly and appropriately, but this is one of many cost benefits, which leads onto…

Cost savings: Run correctly, remote working will certainly offer cost savings on desk space. And I don’t need to tell any business leader how much it costs to fund a desk for a year.  You’ll also likely find that you reduce your recruitment and retention costs because of increased…

Loyalty: This is all part of the talent conversation and it’s a major factor in the business benefits of flexible working.  The more you enable your employees to do a great job in their work AND achieve what they want in life, the greater loyalty you will drive.

Productivity: There are many examples of productivity increasing when flexible working is introduced. Intel reported a 16% increase in productivity per worker per week when flexible working was introduced. BP reported an 11% increase. Interestingly, Brian Puffer, their VP of Global Business Services, said: “The biggest issue we had with introducing flexible working was over-productivity; people doing too much and never switching off.” A useful lesson to learn!

 

Our perception is that the events industry has been slow to adopt flexible working. Would you agree? If so, why do you think this is?

I’ve heard of various flexible working initiatives in the events industry, including the fairly straightforward one day a week from home, to core hours in the office in the middle of the day and the rest of the hours to be completed at a time that suits the employee. I recently heard of one company which offered a 4-day working week for a fixed period as a perk if the business achieved certain targets. There are multiple companies with no guidelines or initiatives at all, and the opposite end of the spectrum is a company that has no office at all; every employee is 100% remote and flexibility on hours is also offered. But, despite these examples, I am somewhat frustrated to agree that the events industry is definitely more laggard than early adopter.

The principle reason for this, in my opinion, is fear. Fear of trying flexible working and it failing. The sorts of things I hear are “we want to trial it, but we don’t know how we would train people properly”; “we want to do it, but we don’t know how to monitor it”; “it won’t work for this department because the employees are too junior” or “we like to have the team all together as we like the buzz”.

There is no question that it is challenging to launch a robust and committed flexible working programme that genuinely achieves those business benefits that I mentioned. But fear of what might happen as a result is absolutely not a reason for inaction. Doing nothing – or attempting something half-baked – will ultimately lead to reduced employee morale, higher attrition and a diminished employer brand.

 

Quite often, we find that the response to not offering flexible working as standard is that “we need to build up trust first”. Do you think the right to work flexibly should have to be earned?

I’ll keep this short – if you don’t trust your employees, why did you hire them in the first place?

If you don’t trust your employees, you will never get flexible working off the ground. Treat people like responsible trustworthy adults and you will reap the rewards. It’s as simple as that.

On a related note – Helen Whately MP put a 10 Minute Bill to parliament in mid-July this year proposing that every job in the UK is advertised as a flexible working job, by law. An employer would need to demonstrate and justify why a role couldn’t be flexible. It would be a very healthy exercise for all business leaders to consider how they might run their business differently if a bill like this were to progress.  It would instantly make trust a moot point.

 

How do you feel flexible working impacts teamwork and collaboration, i.e. not having everyone in at the same time?

This is an interesting one as the vibe is different, but in no way less team-focused or collaborative. There are two principle elements to this:

1) using the right platforms and tech to enable awesome communication, and:

2) expectation-setting for how you expect people to work, particularly at management level.

The tech and platforms can seem overwhelming if you are currently an email-centric company with audio calling only, but once you go beyond this, you’ll never look back. Slack is currently a go-to, but there are many other super intuitive platforms that you can use for messaging, document sharing, threaded chats, screen sharing, calendar sharing calling and video calling. And if you have a CRM and/or CMS system, many of them will sync up with it, giving you live customer info through your primary communication platform. Mattermost, Bitrix 24, Team Tracker App, SamePage are just a few of the many other platforms and tools worth considering.

Give your teams the tools to remain fully cohesive and collaborative, treat them like responsible adults and flexible/remote working will not be a problem.

 

What should companies ensure is in place when flexible working is introduced? (e.g. best practice, trial period, reporting, measurements to ensure effective working)

Dedicate time to documenting exactly how it will work, and why you are doing it in the first place. Be honest with yourself on the aspects of it that make you most uncomfortable and then work through them as you would any other business challenge; take advice externally, leverage your leadership team, attend an event to find out more. Get any tech in place that you want to use and identify the metrics you’ll need to demonstrate business benefit in the future.

Get your leadership team on board and prepare them to start leading by example. Some companies struggle to give leadership as much flexibility as middle levels, but this is not motivational best practice – imagine if the more experienced and senior you became, the less flexibility was made available to you? So get them tooled up to drive best practice.

And then for go live…

What: Give your employees ultra-clarity of what your flexible working world looks like. Prepare a communication plan for getting this message out clearly. If it isn’t easy to understand, it’s going to go wrong. Be clear on what will be measured and reported on (making sure this is focused on output, and not when/where they did the work!)

Why: It’s vital to tell your people why you are doing this – and don’t shy away from the business benefits. Treat your team like trustworthy adults and tell them what’s in it for them AND what’s in it for you; this helps build trust.

When: Is it an immediate start? Or from next quarter? And will you be running a trial period? Whatever your plan is, be clear when communicating it and again, explain why. In the case of a trial period, be clear about what you will be reviewing at the end of that trial period, and what may happen after that trial period.

And then do it – wholeheartedly, fully and with total commitment.

 

How do you feel the events sector performs with respect to gender diversity and inclusion in comparison with other sectors? Do you believe a strong flexible working policy could have a significant impact on this?

If you look at the senior leadership levels, including ownership level of the private companies, there is unquestionably a gender parity gap.

The vast majority of event companies who were required to report their Gender Pay Gap in 2018 revealed higher pay for men than women. Some companies have issued detailed reports on their gender diversity stats, facts and action plans which is very encouraging.

But overall, I think this sector can, and should, do better. Every major consulting house has reported clear statistics that show companies with strong gender parity at senior levels make more money. Given that this is a highly competitive industry, with aggressive growth and profit aspirations, this surely makes gender diversity and inclusion a crucial concern for all business owners and board members?

 

Interview conducted by Kevin Hosier, Co-Director of GCN Talent

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