What exactly is flexible working…and how compatible is it with working practices?

Written by: Sarah Wilkinson – HR Consultant

It seems that every time I read an article about people management I come across the words ‘flexible working’. Some companies have really embraced it over the recent years, but for many, smaller companies it can seem quite daunting. What exactly is flexible working, and do we have to offer it to our employees?

Larger corporations may have a full suite of HR policies that befit any scenario, polished to perfection. They have done their competitive analysis; they know they want to be an ‘Employer of Choice’ and they have developed a wide range of family friendly, flexible terms and conditions. Ah-ha…. this will mean they have the pick of the crop. No more hard to fill vacancies for them; you name it, they can offer it: Part-time, zero hours, term-time only, split shifts, annualised hours, flexitime. And a load of top-notch benefits to boot. BUT…

What about the needs of the business? Oh yes… that. Suddenly when we shine a light on flexibility and haul it in for questioning, doubts creep in. What about the small-medium businesses that simply can’t afford to offer this level of flexibility, because it simply means they won’t have enough cover in the office without someone there full-time, on a typical 9-5 working pattern?

Except there is no typical working pattern any more. Times have changed. Employees often now want a degree of flexibility, no matter who they work for. The key question here is how often do they want flexibility, how much flexibility do they want and what benefit is there to the business in offering flexibility? If you find the ideal candidate, can you really risk losing them because they want to work 4 days instead of 5 or they need to leave early to avoid the rush hour traffic for the long commute home?

Let’s consider your options. Would condensed hours work, or a job share? Or operating a ‘core hour’ policy i.e. all staff must be in the office between 10-4 but they have flexibility and use flexitime around this. What about working from home if they have to leave early? Being open minded about flexible working doesn’t mean that you’ll get someone who wants to work part-time and just turn up, do the bare minimum and leave. Of course, you must consider your workforce as a whole (and setting a precedence), and making sure that there is a fair allocation of work and a duty of care to all your employees. This also means being realistic with your expectations as an employer and the expectations of your staff.

Here’s where we should be considering a form of mutual flexibility, which brings benefits to both you as the employer and your employees. This could include part-time or home working as functional flexibility, but reducing the use of zero-hours or fixed term contracts. Namely because you won’t see the return on investment, but also because these contracts don’t offer job security and are unlikely to result in recruiting the right candidate. Higher profitability through people can also be encouraged by allowing more autonomous working and knowledge sharing. Costs can be reduced on overheads through allowing a degree of homeworking or hot desking.

The bottom line is that if your employees feel that you are supporting them, they are more emotionally engaged, more satisfied with their work, more loyal and committed and less likely to resign. There’s also been some research on the amount of effort employees put in being enhanced by a greater work-life balance. In short; flexibility can be used as a strategic tool to support improved individual and business performance through greater diversity, brand competitiveness and employee engagement.

All this is great of course, but you’ll need to consider and balance the cost of implementing any form of flexible working against the needs of the customer and levels of service. This can be a complex topic and one which falls under the Employment Rights Act in the right to request flexible working for all employees with a minimum of 26 weeks’ continuous service. All requests need to be considered in a reasonable manner; have a look at this article for some practical guidance and if you have any queries please drop me an email sarah@swchr.co.uk

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