Flexible working used to be a benefit of salespeople and a few senior managers. But times have changed: new technologies and the need to increase productivity have driven the adoption of flexible working practices significantly, to the point where, at least some of the time, it has come to be regarded as essential.
This is particularly true of tech-savvy Generations Y and Z who see it as normal to be constantly online via smartphones, tablets and instant messaging services, for example.
The extent of this shift was laid bare by our recent research, which showed that flexible working is a major differentiator for jobseekers evaluating new jobs and a key factor in developing employee loyalty and retention.
Those who doubt that retention is real-world problem in Hong Kong need look no further than the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management's study, Quarterly Survey on Manpower Statistics, Q4 and Full-Year 2012. This showed that in 2012 – the last year for which figures are available – average staff turnover reached a 10-year high of 17 per cent.
And Hong Kong is not alone: recruitment has long been a major challenge for businesses around the world, and even with high rates of unemployment in certain European economies, it remains an expensive and difficult issue.
So it's not surprising that 24 per cent of global businesses interviewed for our latest Business Confidence Index said they were keen to reduce the cost of the process.
In Hong Kong, the proportion was even higher, at 30 per cent.
Staff retention is seen as a key ingredient in this drive to reduce recruitment and training costs. Forty-two per cent of Hong Kong businesses that contributed to our survey said this would be a priority or the coming 12 months.
As a result, businesses both in Hong Kong and globally are increasingly recognising that flexible working may provide an answer to the vexed issue of recruitment and retention.
Recruitment agency fees, training of new employees and other loyalty enhancing perks represent an expense, while flexible working actually represents a potential cost saving for businesses, as it reduces unused desk space.
Seventy-five per cent of local senior managers and business owners (and 74 per cent globally) believe that flexible working can enhance retention. Businesses in emerging economies, where workforces are typically younger and more tech-savvy, were particularly likely to acknowledge the importance of flexible working in retention strategies.
Flexible working is also believed to make employees more loyal to their employers, a view backed by 73 per cent of Hong Kong respondents. This is because it enables them to achieve a better work/life balance and with the result that they are more reluctant to leave.
However, the survey also shows that flexible working is not just a retention tool as it can also aid recruitment: both globally and in Hong Kong, 72 per cent of respondents reported that having such a policy could help attract top talent.
When asked to think from a job applicant's perspective, the results seem to confirm this, with 75 per cent of Hong Kong workers saying they would pick a job that offered flexibility over a similar one that did not (the figure was even higher, at 82 per cent, among mainland Chinese respondents).
Moreover, 56 per cent of local respondents reported that they would actually turn down a job if flexible working was ruled it out.
Clearly, times and attitudes are changing. Increasingly, the power of flexible working as a means of retaining key employees and attracting fresh talent is being recognised and acted on by employers.
Businesses, especially those with a younger workforce, should be careful to acknowledge the demand for flexible working as an essential business benefit that may often be the make-or-break in attracting top talent.
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Hongkong Business. The author was not remunerated for this article.
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John Henderson is the Chief Financial Officer of Regus, Asia-Pacific. He has been with Regus for 12 years. He first joined to take up the post of Director for Best Practice in London, later moving to Australia to help set up the head office of Regus Asia-Pacific. Almost five years later, he moved with the AsiaPacific office to Hong Kong as Chief Financial Officer. He has been based here ever since.