Flexible working has received a lot of news coverage over recent weeks. The government has now extended the right to request flexible working to all employees who have been in their job for more than 26 weeks. This change has been welcomed by many who see the right as a ‘rubber stamp’ to modern ways of working. However, some employer groups and legal experts have warned that it could create staffing problems for firms or mean that businesses have to shoulder an additional administrative burden when dealing with requests from employees. The extension of flexible working legislation can undoubtedly bring benefits for employees who want a better work/life balance, or have commitments outside of work. But I believe the extension can also bring benefits to employers – if it’s managed in the right way.
In my organisation, webexpenses, we have offered employees the opportunity to work flexibly for some time. This includes flexibility about the hours people work and their location. We recognise that staff have lives outside of the office. We want work to complement that, not conflict with it, so we accommodate part-time working and flexible hours where we can. We have an office, but many of our employees work from home – for all or part of the week – because this suits the nature of their roles. For me, this approach can bring numerous business benefits. Giving people the opportunity to work in a way that suits them – whether that’s full-time from the office or hours that work around an employee’s other commitments – boosts the morale within our organisation which, in turn, makes our business more productive.
At webexpenses, I believe our flexible working ethos has also led to increased staff retention and I’m not alone in this view. A Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) survey in 2012 found that employee retention was identified as the top business benefit of flexible working, with 76% of managers reporting this as the reason why they adopted flexible working practices. The CIPD survey also highlighted that 56% of employers found that absenteeism dropped after they introduced flexible working. These benefits together can boost a firm’s bottom line. In fact, a study by Regus found that 63% of managers directly linked a growth in revenue to flexible working.
So how can employers make the most of flexible working? What can businesses who haven’t previously seen the potential benefits do to introduce it? From my experience, there are five golden rules that businesses should follow.
The first – and, for me, the most important – is clarity in terms of the objectives set for individual employees. ‘Old school’ management models involve checking that employees are working the required hours, but this model cannot support flexible working. A business that allows its employees to work flexibly must embrace more modern styles of management where performance is measured on the objectives met, rather than the hours worked. To make this effective in practice, you need a clear company, departmental and individual appraisal structure that enables people to be set, and measured against, precise goals. Being clear about the requirements of an individual’s role means that, if they request to work flexibly, you can consider whether their objectives can be met within any new working arrangements. You can also monitor the delivery against objectives to ensure that flexible working isn’t having a negative impact on employee performance.
The second rule is to embrace the potential benefits. Employers need to be clear about how flexible working can have a positive impact on their business. Ask the individual to explain how they see their proposed new working arrangements operating and any potential impact on the business. This information will enable you to give reasonable consideration to the request and weigh up the potential impact on your business plus the benefits this may bring. For example, allowing people to work from home might reduce office costs; or cost savings could be made by allowing people to work part-time around your business needs. Only by being convinced that flexible working will be good for business will you give it the support you need in order to maximise the advantages of it.
The third golden rule is to be prepared for any issues that may arise. Think about the wider impact that flexible working might have on your business and other employees. Ensure that your flexible working policy is up to date so that you maintain a consistent approach to how you deal with different requests. It’s important to take a common sense approach; for example, it would make no business sense for a company to agree to several requests to take Fridays off and risk being under resourced on that day as a result. Furthermore, one size doesn’t fit all. The reasons for asking for flexible working will differ from employee to employee and the nature of the requests will vary. Again, it’s important that employers are prepared for this and consider their own flexibility in accommodating the requests of different employees.
Now the right to request flexible working has been extended for all employees with more than 26 weeks continuous service, it’s likely that more employers will need to familiarise themselves with the legalities surrounding it. The employment conciliation service, ACAS, has produced a very useful guide on how to handle requests to work flexibly. It sets out what employees should do if they want to make a request, and that employers should make it clear what information they need to include as part of this. It also provides clarity on the reasons why an employer can reject a request. I would recommend that employers create a flexible working policy for their organisation and publish it, perhaps on the staff intranet, so that employees are aware of criteria that will be considered if they submit a request. This will help to manage expectations, ensuring that employees don’t feel disgruntled if their request is declined.
My fourth golden rule is communication. Employers should establish open channels of feedback between themselves and their employees. Be open about what’s working and what isn’t with regards to the introduction of any new working practices. Even before a request is agreed, if you don’t think you can accommodate it in its current form, can you make suggestions for how it can be altered to meet the needs of both the employee and your business? With this in mind, one thing that I’d suggest is a trial period, where the new working arrangements can be assessed by both parties before the change becomes permanent.
And finally, my fifth golden rule is to make the most of the technology that’s available to aid flexible working. At webexpenses, we utilise online document sharing such as Google Docs. We also use instant messaging to ensure that employees are in touch with each other in real time. Webexpenses itself is a cloud-based application that can help employees who work remotely by allowing them to process expense claims online. Other useful technologies are video conferencing and screen sharing. These ‘non-traditional’ ways of working can make flexible working a more viable option for your business.
The concept of flexible working might be unnerving for some employers but it doesn’t have to be. It has had a positive impact on my business and, by following a few simple steps, other organisations can embrace the benefits too.
By Michael Richards, Chairman of webexpenses