Need to know:
- Flexible-working structures that give employees’ autonomy over their working hours can improve the wellbeing and work-life balance of all, especially among working carers, or those with fluctuating health conditions.
- Alternative leave policies allow for life events and unexpected personal demands, while leaving holiday allowances free for relaxing and boosting wellbeing.
- Organisational culture and management attitudes are central to the success of non-traditional working patterns.
For many, the link between flexible-working patterns and the business bottom line is clear; Productivity, technology and working anywhere, published by The Work Foundation in January 2018, for example, found that 45% of respondents believe that the changing approach to work is a key driver of improved productivity.
This is in no small part due to the impact on overall wellbeing. A survey published by corporate events organisation Wildgoose in August 2019 also found that 39% of individuals who work flexibly have seen a noticeable improvement in their mental health, while 70% feel that it helps them maintain a good work-life balance.
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Kristal McNamara, co-founder and director at Flexology, says: “People who work flexibly are happier and healthier, take less time off sick [and] their stress levels are better, because they are getting that [work-life] balance. They are getting that break and coming back to work refreshed; it is really advantageous.”
Initially, employers could consider operating flexible hours or a flexitime policy, in which staff have the autonomy to choose their own start and finish times each day around a set of core hours when they are expected to be available.
Employees might also choose to work from home or remotely, or to engage in a job share arrangement, where two part-time employees fulfil the tasks of a single full-time job.
Annual hours arrangements, meanwhile, contract employees to work a set number of hours over the course of the year, while allowing them to choose their own working pattern. Under this system, an individual could opt to take school holiday time off, or work longer hours during peak business periods, but cut back to part-time shifts when demand has decreased.
Alternatively, compressed hours allow employees to work their contracted time over a shorter period, for example during slightly longer working days.
The wide variety of methods of implementing flexibility is, in itself, a characteristic of the future of work, says Adam Firby, HR director, UK and Ireland at Molson Coors Brewing Company. “The way we’re all working is changing. The amount of different work styles that are in the workplace now is greater than it’s ever been.
“People have different needs; different generations have different desires, different wants. People want to work flexibly, whatever flexibly means for them, and that’s the biggest challenge.”
Some of the biggest beneficiaries of the perks of flexibility are working carers, who can not only allow for their responsibilities, but also carve out time for their own personal needs, from GP appointments and errands to exercise or mental wellbeing exercises.
Melanie Wilkes, policy adviser at The Work Foundation, says: “Taking self-care is particularly difficult for carers, because there’s just such high pressures on their time.
“Work autonomy is really key; they can work longer days when they are more available and then be able to prioritise the person they care for when they need to.”
Employees with fluctuating, long-term physical and mental health conditions can also benefit from non-traditional working patterns, to help them manage episodes of ill-health and retain better wellbeing.
“Their needs aren’t stable,” Wilkes explains. “If somebody’s experiencing a lot of pain or a depressive episode, then having the option to start a bit later and finish a bit later might make all the difference.
“Flexible working is usually no cost, or very low cost, to implement and it can actually, in some cases, reduce sickness absence and support established talent and people with real expertise to stay in the business.”
The working week
One non-traditional working pattern that is gaining traction and visibility is the four-day working week. Organisations that are piloting, or have implemented, this to date include flight and hotel business Upgrade Pack, recruitment firm MRL Consulting and New Zealand-based Perpetual Guardian.
Tax consultancy business Accordance VAT conducted two trial periods in July and August 2019, and managing director Lucy Franklin is hopeful that the business will formally launch a four-day week in 2020.
“[The four-day working week gives] people more space to step away from work and focus on their own personal wellbeing,” she says. “I would much prefer happier, healthier, more productive staff that we can retain, rather than those that feel unable to balance their work and life in a positive way.”
Molson Coors Brewing Company, meanwhile, introduced a life leave benefit in July 2019, empowering employees to take an additional two weeks of paid leave, on top of their existing holiday entitlement, for personal situations, such as attending a school event, moving house or studying for an exam.
“It was about appreciating that these things come along, that they matter to individuals and, therefore, they matter to us,” Firby says. “Life leave was a simple solution to try and help people not to worry about how to deal with those circumstances.
“[Employees] can take that time and they can keep holiday for what it’s meant to be, which is to rest, relax and switch off.”
Organisational culture is instrumental to the success of flexible-working patterns, and there is no one solution for all businesses.
Franklin says: “We’re a European business. For UK domestic business, [a four-day working week] might feel culturally a little odd. For Europeans, this is much more the norm.”
To create a workplace culture that is more open to non-traditional working patterns, senior leader role modelling is a key influence. “The role of leadership in embedding a new workplace culture, or shifting workplace culture, is absolutely key,” says Wilkes.
Equally, old-fashioned attitudes can be a hindrance, says McNamara. “Employers themselves could do more to embrace and utilise non-traditional working patterns,” she adds. “What needs to change is this attitude from more traditional hiring managers whose view is ‘I’ve already got too many flexible workers in my team’ or ‘this role can’t be done [part-time]’. It’s those kinds of attitudes that need to change.”
In order to do this, employers need to ensure that they have relevant policies and processes in place that clarify the available flexible structures, as well as implement support and training for managers.
As Franklin concludes: “If [employers] can’t get the most from [their] people, [they will] not get the best from [their] business. It’s worth being bold and brave around those moves.”