How can employers fully embrace flexible working practices?

flexible working practices

Need to know:

  • Flexibility in working practices is in high demand and accommodating this can influence an organisation’s performance; but this takes careful planning to implement effectively.
  • Leadership buy-in, role models and strong communication are all elements of laying the groundwork for flexible working practices, as is ensuring that internal systems are already streamlined.
  • Employers need to work hard to dispel myths around the productivity of flexible working employees, as well as gender stereotypes; this avoids disadvantaging those with non-traditional working practices.

Demonstrating the increasing prevalence of flexible working practices, Flexible working: a talent imperative, published by recruitment site Timewise in September 2017, found that 87% of respondents either work flexibly already, or say they want to.

More than just an increasing employee demand, flexibility can benefit organisations in a myriad of ways, notes Claire McCartney, co-director of inclusive talent and associate at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

“Quality flexible working can increase an organisation’s ability to attract and retain diverse talent, improve employee job satisfaction and loyalty and it can increase an organisation’s agility and responsiveness to market changes.”

Proper implementation faces many barriers, but these are worth overcoming to reap the rewards. 

Be prepared

If flexible working practices are to have a positive impact on output, they have to be integrated into a system that is already effective, says Dan Harding, director at Sign In App.

“Put a team on it that looks at streamlining the business from the inside first, and then looks at rolling [flexibility] out,” he recommends. “If it isn’t properly planned, it’ll fail from the off.”

This planning also comes into play when considering the options for individuals. Harding continues: “Sometimes [employers] find somebody’s spending a day a week sorting out the holidays or something like that. That can be automated for practically no money whatsoever and then [they have] just bought a member of the team a day a week.”

Finding these inefficiencies and then devising how a workforce with diverse schedules will integrate effectively is no small undertaking.

Kirstie Axtens, head of employer services and WF consulting at Working Families, says: “One of the practical things that organisations need to do is ensure that people, particularly hiring managers, know how to do a bit of job design. The manager’s got to be able to look at the proposal and look at the role and say if it’s going to work.”

It is also important to ensure that flexible working practices are brought in fairly and with a clear design and strategy, rather than in an ad hoc fashion. Ideally, the option should be available to all, but if this is impossible, employers should ensure that the logic is clear and that they communicate openly on the subject.

Shelley Snelson, director at recruitment organisation Flexology, warns: “One pitfall that businesses do fall into quite a lot is a lack of planning, falling into flexible working and not thinking about how that role will work.”

Open and honest communications with employees, line managers and even clients that might be affected can help employers understand the needs that have to be met, as well as find innovative solutions.

“Pilots are helpful, for instance three-month trial periods,” adds McCartney. “[Organisations] can have the opportunity to test out how best [flexibility] can work and get feedback from all parties. It’s about assessment, monitoring and making changes if needed.”

Understand the technology

Whether due to remote access to internal systems, cloud-based sharing, or the wide range of available communication methods, technological progress has made it possible to work on different sides of the world almost as easily as different sides of the office. However, this too needs careful consideration and planning.

If [the business is] a slick, organised, process-driven environment, it’s easier to get a flexible and remote workforce in place,” says Harding. “You need to get the correct software in place and working internally before you can look at spreading that boundary.”

Make a cultural change

The first step in changing perceptions and making flexibility a viable option, notes Snelson, is leaders not only buying in, but acting as examples.

“Even just introducing a little bit of flexibility into some of the senior roles invites different thoughts and different mindsets, and those people will be more likely to support others in flexible working requests,” she says. “The more [organisations] start to get a bit of flexibility into senior roles, it just starts to creep in a bit more.”

Then, employers should focus on communicating positively about flexibility, with an emphasis on real examples that are relevant to their own workforce.

“Role models, case studies, it’s all about showing that there are people in the organisation doing this,” explains Axtens. “[Employers] can’t just write a policy and put it on [the] intranet and expect it to be actually used.”

Part of a wider strategy

At its best, a commitment to flexibility will complement and underline an organisation’s benefits strategy, as well as its approach to employee wellbeing and work-life balance. Employers should consider the diverse ways in which flexible working practices can address the needs of their workforce.

For example, it can be an integral tool when supporting employees with health issues, notes Katherine Moxham, spokesperson at Group Risk Development (Grid).

She says: “In a return-to-work situation, it can be quite daunting going in for a full working day or week straight off and sometimes it’s a case of easing people in gently. People with longer-term health conditions as well will benefit from some modifications to their hours, allowing them to have an easier [commute].”

Changing the measurements

If employees with both traditional and flexible working practices are going to seamlessly integrate, there needs to be a shift in the measurement of productivity, away from an hourly system in which visibility is key, and towards something more project or goal-orientated.

“[Employers should] make sure that everybody has measurable objectives and that they are judged on their output, not their input,” Axtens explains.

This can have positive effects on all employees, regardless of whether they work flexibly, because it makes it clear that their worth is not based on how much time they have clocked. This ultimately impacts engagement and presenteeism.

Chris Dyer, chief executive officer at risk management solutions business PeopleG2 and author of The Power of Company Culture, says: “Be up front about what success looks like. It’s easier for the employees to weave themselves in and out of that flexibility if they understand what the goals are. On the flip side, what does failure look like? Have that conversation.

“If [employers] don’t already know how to measure whether somebody has done a good job or not, regardless of their working situation, it’s going to be pretty hard for [them].”

Keep in contact

Once these boundaries have been set, communication is key to ensuring effective collaboration within a team that has varied schedules and locations.

When employees are working remotely, regular contact becomes important for reasons beyond the practical, notes Moxham: “It can be lonely and keeping in touch with people is important. We see the negative effects coming through in terms of poor mental health.”

The difference, she explains, might lie between an instant message or email and a more personal phone call.

Busting myths

One of the most prominent examples of a damaging assumption around flexibility is that non-traditional employees will be less productive, but Dyer explains that this is often far from the truth. “I spend more time telling people to stop working than I ever do trying to get people to work more,” he says. “They love what they do, and the flexibility, and they feel responsibility because [employers have] given them this privilege and they take it seriously.”

Adrian Lewis, co-founder and global lead for Activ People HR, agrees: “A lot of staff who have the opportunity to work flexibly can be more productive. They get time on their own, not bothered by interruptions, and can deliver a better productivity rate to their managers and organisation.”

Another issue surrounds gender stereotypes, which might deter men in particular from taking up flexible working practices.

McCartney recommends that organisations use examples from their own data to overcome myths about productivity, while Axtens suggests that men should be actively approached about their options, particularly when they are becoming parents.

“Keep reiterating the fact that flexible working is for everyone in the organisation because it is an efficient way for [it] to carry out its business,” she explains.

Finally, employers need to ensure that flexible working practices help employees to thrive, rather than forcing them to fall behind.

“Part-time [employees] and flexible [staff] say that they would be more willing to make compromises in terms of their career development and that they feel they’ve been falling behind full-time colleagues in terms of skills and knowledge,” McCartney concludes. “That’s one area that’s really important that an organisation needs to pick up on, to make sure [it is] offering the same opportunities to flexible [employees] as [to] those with more traditional patterns.”