How to ‘nudge’ flex forward through Behavioural Science

I often find that one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the implementation and uptake of flex working in an organisation is change management - particularly when it comes changing deeply ingrained behaviours.

One such behaviour is the status quo view of the working day and unwritten rules on what it should look like. But through the use of behavioural science, (or behavioural economics), it’s possible to shift these ingrained norms and create an environment through which flex working can flourish and bring about real business benefits including staff retention, recruitment and diversity.

In their best-selling book ‘Nudge’, Harvard Law Professor, Cass Thaler and Economist, Richard Sunstein, explore the idea that human judgment and decision making is based on a series of mental shortcuts, or ‘heuristics’.

Thaler and Sunstein look at how we can use these shortcuts for good, to “nudge” people into making favourable decisions, for example saving for retirement, donating organs, quitting smoking, or in our case, towards uptake and sustaining flexible working practices.

Critically, it’s not just the implementation of the initial change that can determine the fate of flex working, but sustaining the change overtime, and this is where behavioural nudges can play a key part.

Here are two examples of how flex working has been applied here in Australia, using nudges based on key insights from behavioural science.

The ‘all roles flex’ nudge

This draws from Thaler and Sunstein’s theory that humans do not have the capacity to evaluate every option available to us, so are more likely to accept the default. For example, an organisation which offers different membership levels, such as a gym, may pre-populate their sign-up forms with the level they would most like you to select, knowing it’s human nature to be swayed towards the default option.

Therefore, by making flex working the default in your organisation, it is much more likely to be taken up and imbedded into the culture for the long-term, than if it is the deviation from the norm.

The ‘herd mentality’ nudge

Again, this touches on our innate tendency towards taking the easier route, when it comes to decision-making and behaviour. People are heavily influenced by the actions of others, and the more we believe that other people are doing something, the more likely we are to do it ourselves.

A great example of this can be seen in eCommerce, where a retailer may use social proof, such as ‘limited stock’ popups, encouraging online shoppers to make a purchase by implying that the item is a popular best-seller.

The more stories you share about the prevalence and benefits seen from flex working, the more you’re likely to see uptake; harnessing the herd mentality bias. This funny video demonstrates how powerful the herd mentality bias can be!

Applying nudges in your organisation

In the context of flex working, you can use behavioural nudges to remove any barriers to uptake and make it as easy as possible to sustain. On the flip side, look at the opposite nudges that may be in place and having the adverse effect on employee uptake.

For example, look at your business’ policy on flexible work; is it an easy to use, inspiring and positive document? Or is it full of caveats, hard to read and a little dull? The latter can nudge staff away from flexible work, sending the message it is all too hard.

Positive nudges towards flex working don’t have to be huge, here are some examples of simple and easy process changes you can make right away:

  • Ensure leaders hold positive conversations around flex

  • Onboard new employees with flex working as the norm

  • Look at meeting procedure - do they always need to be attended in person?

  • How are your team calendars structured? Is the traditional working day set default?

This Harvard Business Review article covers how three, comparatively minor interventions in process, led to the successful launch and implementation of flexibility for the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet. The incredible part is that, a year later the behaviour change seems to have stuck, and they are showing the highest levels of flexible working in all of NSW government.

When considering the implementation of flexible working - whichever stage you are in the process, I encourage you to think about the behavioural science opportunities.

How can you use a few nudges here and there to support the change? When done well, they really can make a massive difference. And of course, if you are not sure how - please get in touch!

Juggle Strategies key takeouts:

Behavioural nudges towards flex don’t have to be time-consuming to implement, they can be as small as a change in the tone of a conversation

Humans are conditioned to take the easiest route; make flex working an easy option and staff are more likely to uptake and keep-up the behaviour

The use of behavioural nudges doesn’t have to stop at encouraging flex, they can be used to implement all sorts of positive change across the business!

Learning from a 4 day work week (full time pay) implementation

Why Juggle Strategies Will Not Help You Write a Policy* (but we sure will help you define some guidelines, and yes the semantics are important here)