Flexible working is increasingly in demand. It’s high on the list of preferred benefits for many UK workers and something CEOs keen to improve employee retention and increase engagement in 2019 should consider.
Research from XpertHR revealed that almost all organisations offer some sort of flexible working arrangements, such as variable start and finish times, and job sharing.
However flexible working must be introduced and managed properly to be a success. This is where many companies are struggling. Nearly a third say demand for flexible working is the biggest challenge for employers.
The main barriers to flexible working include operational difficulties, additional pressure on other workers and a detrimental impact on customer service. There can also be resistance from managers, discontent from workers not included in flexible working and work scheduling difficulties. Companies could also incur additional costs.
But employers can’t afford to ignore flexible working. Since 30 June 2014 employers have a legal duty to give due consideration to requests by employees with 26 weeks’ continuous service to move to flexible working. At any time they might receive a request from one of their employees to work more flexibly, so being prepared is essential.
Developing the business case
It’s good practice for organisations to develop a policy on flexible working to demonstrate their commitment to it. Consulting with employees and managers will provide data on the potential demand for flexible working, the possible drawbacks and barriers and the types of flexible working employees and managers would favour. An internal consultation process and setting out the business case are the first steps to putting a policy together.
The consultation serves two purposes: to gain the feedback of those who will be affected by any change in working practices, and to obtain buy-in from across the organisation to the change process itself. It’s important that the consultation is endorsed from the start by the senior management team and the CEO to ensure it is taken seriously.
Employers should set up an inter-disciplinary project team to canvas views and suggestions in a variety of ways such as questionnaires, one-to-one interviews and discussion or focus groups. They should then analyse the feedback, consider other employers’ experiences of flexible working and develop a draft business case to test the suitability of all flexible working options for the organisation.
The business case should set out the positive, negative and neutral impact of flexible working on a number of areas, such as compliance with legislation, the spread of employees’ working hours over the week in respect of staff cover and availability, customer service, absence levels, stress levels, productivity and payroll costs.
It should also include relevant quantifiable factors such as the potential saving in recruitment and induction costs if employee retention is improved, and the cost of providing cover for staff who change their working patterns. However, some factors, such as improvements in employee relations, will inevitably be difficult to quantify.
Once the project team has the evidence from the business case, its consultation exercise and other employers’ experiences, it can recommend a course of action to senior management and/or the board.
Flexible working options
In drafting the policy, the project team should begin by detailing the types of flexible working that will be offered, such as part-time, flexitime, variable hours, self-rostering, job-sharing and shift-swapping. Career breaks and sabbaticals should also be considered.
Its good practice for flexible working to be open to all employees and managers on the same terms and to be open to the workforce as a whole, not only employees who have worked for the employer for six months (as with the statutory right to request flexible working).
It’s also important that decisions about whether or not to grant requests are based on an objective assessment of the business case and that no information is sought about the reasons why individuals wish to move to flexible working.
If followed this should encourage applications from a wider range of employees during recruitment processes and will help ensure that all applications are treated objectively and consistently, based on the impact to the business of the potential change.
Training and supporting line managers
Although flexible working can result in benefits to an organisation, there are also potential barriers to its introduction, including resistance from line managers. Training and support for line managers will therefore be particularly important if a scheme is to be successful.
First line and middle managers can make or break the initiative as they have considerable influence over the organisation’s culture, in particular whether or not attendance at the office for long periods of time (presenteeism) is expected, and they will be responsible for making any flexible working arrangements work day-to-day.
It is good practice for employers to ensure that their line managers are fully involved in the decision to introduce flexible working. Their early involvement is likely not only to help produce a workable arrangement but also to assist in gaining their buy-in to the flexible working concept.
Flexible working can demand higher levels of skills such as leadership, communication, assertiveness, teambuilding, decision-making and coaching. It is therefore key for employers to ensure that all managers are given a good grounding in people management skills.
Flexible working can help make the most of today’s diverse workforce, reduce skills shortages and improve engagement and retention. In addition, most employees have the legal right to request flexible working. Organisations therefore should have a robust policy in place backed by the CEO to ensure it can be introduced and managed effectively.
Sheila Attwood is the Managing Editor for pay and practice at XpertHR.
A flexible working policy from XpertHR can be found here.