In the first post of this three-part series, I looked at the benefits of flexible working for both the employee and the employer. From widening your talent pool to reducing staff turnover and increasing productivity, the plethora of benefits makes flexible working a highly attractive option.
Often the sticking point for organisations is how to actually implement flexible working as well as some deep rooted management assumptions about its lack of workability, particularly for certain roles. Whilst employers have largely moved on from the misconception that flexible working is all about employees wanting to work part-time, there are many team leaders that are still put off by the notion of managing team members working in a myriad of different ways. Herein lies the challenge and hopefully in this post I can help to break some of the preconceptions and offer some solutions to help you implement flexible working in your workplace.
Purple House recently held an event with a broad HR audience and it revealed the differing views about flexible working and where it sits as a priority within their respective businesses. Here's a round-up of some of the barriers I heard from employers and employees.
Resistance from employers and managers
A perceived lack of employee control – Many employers feel that they lack the capability to manage flexible workers as effectively as they could if they were full-time in the office i.e. managing communications with the employee and between team members. There is still an emphasis and ‘comfort’ on managing presence rather than productivity and a lack of trust in employees.
Operational pressures – Concerns about being less able to meet customer and service demands, coupled with a feeling that flexible working leads to a lack of control over workflow
Absence of suitable processes or tech to facilitate flexible working – Flexible or remote working can require tech investment to enable collaboration and communication and to measure productivity. Without a firm belief in the benefits of flexible working, it can be difficult to get the company to invest the resources to make it happen
Lack of support from leadership – For flexible working to really work there needs to be top-down support. When the spirit of flexible working isn't embraced by leadership there tends to be a hole in the company culture. This invariably leads to a lack of clarity, policy and will and ensures management attitudes such as ‘you can’t do a senior role flexibly’ or ‘you can’t do a client-facing role flexibly’ permeate.
Resistance from employees to working flexibly
Out of sight out of mind – Many employees share the concern that if they work flexibly they will be less likely to progress within the company and are generally left ‘out of the loop’. They also worry that managers will feel that they are less committed than other employees.
Flexible working means taking a step down or stagnating – Many already 'trade down' skills, experience or position to work flexibly and it's difficult to get back up again. According to a survey by the Timewise Foundation in 2013, 81% of flexible workers said that their job was a step down or at the same level as their last full-time job. The result is known as the ‘flexibility trap’ – employees are unable to progress but equally unable to leave unless they can achieve the flexibility elsewhere.
Part time pay but full-time hours –a real issue for many who negotiate reduced hours. Although the employees official contract is part time, if the role is not redesigned around the contracted hours, the expectations for what has to be delivered remain the same.
Organisations reaping the benefits of flexible working
Despite some bad publicity for flexible working, for example when Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer took up the company reins in 2013 and axed home working in a bid to increase productivity and improve company culture, there are many companies that have managed to implement flexible working policies effectively and in a way that works for the business, management and the individual employee. According to research carried out by ILM, flexible working is now standard practice in half (50%) of the companies surveyed, with four in five managers saying they had taken advantage of flexible working at some point in the past four years. Amongst the 1,000 managers surveyed, 87% believed flexible working has been beneficial to their businesses in productivity and retention, 62% felt it helped them respond to their customer’s needs.
The Timewise Foundation which champions the benefits of flexible working and contributes to policy in this area, publishes an annual list of senior people working in all sorts of flexible ways for all sorts of businesses (the ‘Power Part-time Top 50’). Their employers have proved that senior roles can be worked very successfully in ways other than standard full-time contracts and as a result they’ve attracted and retained many talented people.
Richard Branson is a well-known advocate of flexible working and has incorporated many flexible working practices into his business. He actively promotes remote working where possible and uses cloud computing technologies to ensure that he and his managers can remain in close communication with remote workers. He's also introduced the practice of unlimited leave! Any employee working at the home of Virgin otherwise known as Virgin Management, or their non-profit foundation (Virgin Unite) are essentially entitled to take as much leave as they need. This level of trust allows employees to manage themselves. They still have KPIs and objectives and as such only take off the time that they can afford.
It's important to note that it's not only large multinationals that are successfully implementing flexible working. Technology agency Dadi has been ripping up the rule book when it comes to flexible working. They have done the unthinkable (which will probably become more commonplace in years to come), they got rid of their office! They now work remotely from locations across the UK, America, and South East Asia. By doing so they have drastically reduced their overheads and are now able to recruit from anywhere in the world.
SMEs are getting involved too. Broad Lane Vets in Coventry was crowned winner of the UK's most flexible small business. More than half of their 40 employees work part-time or flexibly, to cover complex shift patterns. The practice offers staff various flexible working patterns, allowing it to both deliver for its customer and for its employees to balance other commitments and interests. This flexibility has helped to foster a happy and committed workforce, ensuring the success of this small practice.
How to make flexible working work
For flexible working to be effective, consider these points;
Flexible working is most effective if driven from the top – Managers, employees and HR agree that commitment from the top of the organisation makes the biggest difference. At Diageo for example, it is expected that people work from home at least one day a week. Flexible working is heavily built into their culture helping them to remain competitive and attract high quality talent.
Positioning of flexible working – The positioning of flexible working must be your start point – as a business how do you want to manage your people? What is right for a business, its customers and employees will vary.
Evidence is vital – It's essential that you know your business drivers and patterns before making any decisions on flexible working requests. Be mindful of your workflow and business peaks. For example if an employee requests to stop working on a Friday, which is also your busiest day, you have a strong case (and hopefully the data) to reject their flexible working request. Consider offering a compromise – a different day could be viable and may still give the employee the flex they need.
Promote honesty and trust – By embedding flexible working in company culture, you can help to promote honesty and trust within your organisation. A recent WorkingMums survey found that women are hiding plans to have children for fear of harming their career prospects. Moreover 50% of women on maternity leave had not yet discussed flexible working arrangements to facilitate their return to work. This lack of honesty and trust means businesses may struggle to plan, manage and deliver for their customers.
Make your policy clear – Simplicity is key. A candidate of mine went into a multinational company on a diversity project to drive more women into senior technology roles. On her arrival she found an extensive Agile Working policy which neither employees nor managers understood. By keeping it simple your staff will know where they stand and will be more able to make the system work for them and for you.
Adopt a team approach – Get the organisation as a whole to consult on the workability of flexible working. By doing so you'll be able to build a pragmatic approach that has the buy-in of your employees. This can also help to reduce resentment for those who are unable to work flexibly. The rise of ‘self managing teams’ may also drive an uptake in flexible working – with an emphasis on team ownership in making decisions, a request for flexibility would be considered and decided by the whole team, reducing possible line manager bias and ensuring any arrangement was workable for all.
Your line managers are the key to making it work – Your line managers play a vital role and have the biggest impact on the success of flexible working. The attitudes of your line managers towards flexible working will ensure whether it sinks or swims. Line managers have to give flexible working requests the consideration that they deserve and if they grant them, have a big part to play in trying to make them work.
HR should take a central role – HR can facilitate, enable, challenge and partner to help make the right decisions. They should also focus on demonstrating best practice internally and externally and should be well equipped to manage line managers potential objections, as well as showcasing the benefits throughout the organisation.
Monitor and review flexible working – Once a request is granted, is it working? Line managers should ensure reviews are in place to consider how well the arrangement is working. It helps to review flexible arrangements regularly to ensure workability for both the employee and the business, as business needs and individual needs will likely change over time.
Look out for my final blog on this topic where I’ll be exploring the topic of flexible working as it relates to external hires.
Written by Lindsey Newman, Director of Purple House HR, a niche recruitment consultancy specialising in the placement of Human Resources professionals. If you would like some advice on hiring an HR professional or implementing flexible working into your recruitment offering then get in touch: