Flexible working could make presenteeism a thing of the past

Offering employees the chance to find their ideal work-life balance is essential for forward-thinking companies

Imagine working in an environment where you are measured on what you deliver, rather than the number of hours you sit at your desk.

If your company had a flexible working option, you might decide to skip the dreaded morning commute to work from home. Shaving off a couple of hours of travel time means you could head to the gym for that much overdue workout, pick up the kids from school in the afternoon, and still put in a hard day’s work.

Or you might decide to work one half-day each week, allowing you time to finish that master’s degree in communications you’ve always fantasised about.

While flexible working is the norm in many industries, it is still unusual in the relatively rigid world of banking. In some of our Asian and African markets, where long hours and presenteeism have been the norm, it is truly radical.

But we have introduced it in all of our markets around the world as part of a drive to make Standard Chartered a place where people can pursue both personal and professional fulfilment, allowing them to deliver the best quality personal service to our customers.

Flexibility works

Our new policy allows employees to request to work from home, work varied hours from day to day, or work part time. This means that one of our HR managers in Dubai can now use flexible working time to train for her climb up Mount Kilimanjaro, one of our business managers in Singapore is advancing her career while being able to spend more time with her child, and a London-based FX traderworks New York hours to free up time to pursue his charity work.

I understand the importance of such flexibility on a deeply personal level. Around 15 years ago, first my mother, and then my father, were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.


At the time I had a demanding job managing the bank’s liquidity, interest rate, and currency risk. But I needed a way to spend more time with my parents, knowing that they were rapidly forgetting who I was.

So I asked to work flexibly one day a week and the request was granted. I was still doing the job but I could also take time out to go for a walk with my father or have tea with my mother, and I will always be grateful for those moments.

Many studies demonstrate that an inflexible nine-to-five regime can hurt productivity and damage employee health. It can entail lengthy commutes that make it harder for employees to juggle their personal and work lives.

It can also make for unhappy workers, which in turn reduces productivity and profits. Importantly, an inflexible working regime can dissuade some people, in particular mothers with young children, from entering or returning to the workplace.

Effect on the economy

The knock-on effect to the economy of rigid work requirements is enormous. A study by the Centre for Economics and Business Research estimates that the cost of this is £62.5bn every year in the UK alone, so the worldwide cost could reach hundreds of billions.

What are the advantages of a flexible working regime? For a start it significantly widens the pool of applicants for a particular role to include not just parents, but also millennials who increasingly expect flexibility and whose digital and other skills are in high demand. It can also mean increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, increased employee engagement and loyalty, and therefore better staff retention. Whatever way you look at it, it makes business sense.

Importantly, it is also about ‘doing the right thing’ by helping to break down the hurdles that prevent people from having balanced, fulfilling lives while they advance their careers.

Longer term, as our working lives extend with increased life expectancy and later retirement ages, flexible working also provides an excellent opportunity to manage work-life balance in response to our needs at different stages of life.

Our new initiative is being taken up with gusto – nearly 250 employees have requested flexible working in the first three months since rollout.

Product over presenteeism

Flexible working presents challenges and there will always be detractors; old stereotypes die hard. Here in the UK, research shows that workers don’t believe their colleagues on flexible working time will work as hard.

It will take time to overcome these attitudes, but at Standard Chartered, we believe that a truly modern, effective and healthy work regime embraces what people produce, rather than hours worked.

At the end of the day, this is all about offering choice and flexibility. In trying to hire and keep the best people available, the businesses that can offer both will find it easier and will thrive.

The ones that don’t will wither.

This article originally appeared in City AM on 17 August 2017