Make flexible working a success

Employers should assess flexible working carefully to balance possible returns with managing potential risks and staff expectations, says Alison Coleman

The ability to work flexibly can be highly attractive to staff, as many face increasing demands on their time. Although the scope of employees eligible to request flexible working increased last April to include carers of adults, the government is now considering extending the right to include parents of children aged up to 18 years. Currently only parents with children aged under six, or up to 18 if disabled, have the right to request to work flexibly.

The government has asked Imelda Walsh, HR director at Sainsbury’s, to conduct a review into an extension of flexible working and her findings are due to be published imminently. If the government gives the go ahead to an extension, then employers could be faced with the difficult task of managing expectations and minimising possible risks to their organisation.

The government, however, may already have got cold feet as in a speech given in February, the secretary of state for business, enterprise and regulatory reform, John Hutton, warned that imposing too many expectations on employers to extend the right to request flexible working arrangements could lead them to turn down all requests from part-time staff.

However, Peter Thomson, director of the Future Work Forum at Henley Management College, believes fears about organisations being overwhelmed or rendered less productive by a tide of requests for flexible hours are largely unfounded. “The worry is that if [employers] offer flexible working to [all staff], everyone will want to take [it up] at the exact same time. The reality is this rarely happens. In a diverse workforce, you will get parents who want flexible hours during term time and people of different ages who don’t. On the whole, it balances itself out. Flexibility breeds flexibility, and when people are given responsibility for managing their own time, the vast majority do it with the needs of others and the responsibilities of their role in mind,” he says.

But there may be times when a disproportionate number of employees want to flex their hours to a similar pattern, so employers must take steps to manage their business so it continues to run effectively.

Clare Kelliher, senior lecturer in strategic HR management at Cranfield School of Management, explains a flexible working policy should be constructed in line with business needs and that employees should recognise this. “It comes down to good communication, particularly at line manager level, to ensure staff understand and accept, that for every request for flexible hours, management have to consider how it will impact on the business,” she says.

This doesn’t just apply to permitting staff to work flexibly. Some employers now offer staff career breaks or a sabbatical after a period of time with them and increasingly these perks are being included in graduate recruitment packages. But employers that take on several graduates at once, may end up with concerns about the impact on their business if a large proportion of their intake become eligible to take this break at the same time. “It is unlikely that every graduate recruit will want to defer the start of their career, or disrupt the early stages of it to go travelling, and it is more likely that you will get a mixture of responses. [But] evidence suggests that employers which offer these types of flexible working benefits will attract high-calibre candidates, even if they don’t take advantage of them, because the [perk] reflects the organisational culture the top graduates are looking for,” says Kelliher.

Another potential problem area is around holiday trading schemes, which enable staff to buy and sell days from their holiday entitlement. Where staff can opt to buy additional days each year, employers will need to manage the situation to ensure this doesn’t impact negatively on productivity or service delivery.

Holiday trading

Vodafone UK, which operates a flexible working policy for its 10,000 employees, introduced the option of buying up to five additional days holiday a year for all staff last year. It managed this potential rostering nightmare by closely monitoring data around staff purchasing holiday combined with good forward planning. The company operates an online flexible benefits system, with a full reporting facility to show holiday purchases.

Alan Thomas, head of policy and reward at the telecoms firm, explains: “Our employees are based across a range of environments, including call centres, offices, shops, and out in the field, so we worked closely with all the management teams to ensure they know who has bought extra holidays, and can then assess what extra holiday cover might be needed. Five extra days is a full working week, but we anticipate most people won’t be taking them [all] in one go.”

When looking to introduce flexible working arrangements of any kind, employers may find they need to challenge existing management attitudes that link productivity to presenteeism. Instead, productivity should be attributed to an employee’s output and performance as opposed to the length of time they physically spend in the workplace.

Paul Avis, corporate development manager, LifeWorks, at Ceridian, says: “I know of some employers [which] give their project teams a set of clear milestones. As long as these are achieved it doesn’t matter where and at what time the work is undertaken. In effect, results are valued above the process itself, [which] can be beneficial for employees who work when they feel most productive.”

However, he also argues that simply having policies in place does not mean an employer can accommodate flexible working. The needs of some organisations, such as the National Health Service (NHS), for example, will mean that allowing staff to work flexibly is not always feasible. “Improving Working Lives is an extensive work-life and flexible working programme in the NHS, but at an operational ward level, requirements can supersede the availability of annualised hours, career breaks, phased retirements, [for example]. The vision is there but sometimes not the resources to realise it,” explains Avis.

Employers will, therefore, need to ensure that the business benefits of offering flexible working arrangements outweigh the risks to the business and managing staff expectations. Jonathan Swan, policy and research officer at charity Working Families, says: “In smaller organisations it is easier to see. For example, companies such as [design agency] Aricot Vert and [technology firm] Open Logic Solutions use flexible working as a way of attracting and retaining talent that they otherwise wouldn’t get and to help them provide more responsive client contact.

“It can be more difficult for bigger employers, where work is done across many sites by a large number of teams, to find one consistent approach to flexible working, as it is the local managers who dictate access to such arrangements.”

What bosses need to consider is the impact on morale if staff are unable to work flexibly as they had expected. Turning down requests can have a negative impact on motivation unless the reason behind the refusal is clearly communicated. “The risk employers run if they can’t offer the right flexibility is that they lose the employee to someone who will. That’s not to say employers have to agree to all requests to work flexibly, [as] they don’t, and they are right to consider legitimate business needs when agreeing arrangements. But it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s usually worth negotiating and finding a mutually-agreeable arrangement, be it a different working pattern or, in some cases, additional salary or other perks,” concludes Swan.

The business case for flexible working

Flexible working arrangements can be deployed to meet employer needs, according to the Orange Future Enterprise coalition report on flexible working, Beyond boundaries, published in June 2007.

Meeting business needs:
In both the public and private sectors, a significant proportion of work happens outside the realms of the traditional Monday-to-Friday working week routine. With many roles now containing a degree of uncertainty in their scheduling, employees can be required to cover a certain amount of work during the seven-day week but the time of execution can vary greatly.

Smarter use of the workforce:
If workers are not required to travel into a particular place to carry out their work, it means they can often change the pattern of how they work. This then makes it more feasible for employees to be deployed for shorter interspersed time slots or at peak times.

Maximising staff productivity:
Allowing staff to choose where they work is likely to increase satisfaction and performance. Individuals who can avoid a long daily commute are likely to feel more positive at the start of their working day. Once staff can choose where they work, they will often do this on the basis of where they will be most effective, improving performance and productivity in certain types of tasks.

Case study: Glide through change

When Lee Valley Regional Park Authority introduced flexible working arrangements in 2006, one of the biggest barriers to the change was its management’s traditional attitudes to working hours.

Claire van der Most, HR manager, explains: “Our objective was to become an employer of choice. Staff turnover was quite high and morale was low. Although flexible working was widely recognised as a way of addressing these issues, there was an old school mentality among the management ranks.”†

A pilot scheme among staff in customer-facing roles at Lee Valley ice rink, however, was used to demonstrate how flexibility could work without impacting on service levels. “The rink manager set out a timetable outlining when cover had to be provided and then left the staff to come up with a rota. It was about people being given the freedom to make decisions and to recognise a need to compromise,” explains van der Most.

After these came into effect, staff turnover fell by 13%, while morale rose to 70% in 2006, up from 52% in 2001.