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The world of work has changed in recent years. Increasingly, businesses are enabling their employees to work more flexibly, and employees expect to be able to work differently. New technologies such as communication platforms like MS Teams, Zoom and Slack have developed to support increased flexibility.
Flexible working operates at it’s best when it works for everyone - the employee and the employer. When properly implemented, benefits to employers include; improved productivity, better attraction and retention of talent and reduced overheads.
Read on for a step-by-step guide that covers practical advice and regulation.
The term flexible working covers a diverse selection of working arrangements. It's about finding something that works for your business, your customers and meets your individual employees’ needs. Finding that ‘sweet spot’, where flexible working practices create the right balance so everyone benefits is the key to success.
In the UK, anyone who’s employed for 26 weeks can make a request to work flexibly. There are lots of reasons why they might do so. They could have children or caring responsibilities, or perhaps they want to spend more time on a hobby or interest. They may want to pursue further education or reskill or they might want to do their bit in their local community by volunteering for a good cause.
Businesses and the wider communities they serve can benefit from a more flexible relationship with those who work for them. Doing so in the right way, could drive more value for your company, your employees and your customers. In the UK, employees making a flexible working request do not have to provide a reason for their request.
As well as supporting an employee’s legal right to request flexible working, there are many reasons for businesses to adopt a flexible working approach. Let’s look at why so many businesses offer more flexible working options.
By embedding flexible working, you’ll have a more competitive offering than less flexible rivals.
Retention and motivation
Once you’ve hired and trained a great team, you’ll want to keep them, and flexible working is a great way to ensure they stay happy and engaged throughout their career with you.
Flexibility at all life stages
There are now five generations in the workplace and they are all seeking flexible working for different reasons. At the start of a career, employees may prefer to work in a hybrid way or have a more portfolio-based career (several reduced hours jobs adding up to full-time work).
Parents and carers may need flexible hours to manage school runs and other caring responsibilities. Those nearing retirement may want to change the way they work as part of their transition into retirement, especially as people are living and working longer. According to a report from Legal & General and the Centre for Economics, 47% of the UK workforce will be over 50 by 2030, whilst other age groups will remain fairly static.
Inclusion and diversity
Flexible working can enable a more diverse workforce and make your organisation feel more inclusive. By creating more flexible roles and opening vacancies to reduced hours, hybrid or home working, this can make working for your organisation more attractive to a wider pool people.
Many organisations in the UK are publicly declaring a commitment to equal gender representation – The McKinsey Women in the Workplace 2022 article showed that flexible and hybrid working is a game changer for women, and in particular for those with a disability.
Matching your workforce to your customer demand
One of the most important things to consider is optimising your workforce so that customers are always well-served while avoiding unproductive capacity during quiet times. Understanding the changing demand of the customers you serve and how you can make sure you have the right people, in the right place, at the right time is at the core of a successful flexible working proposition.
By hiring people who work from home or in a hybrid role, you may be able to reduce your outlay on work space and contribute to a more sustainable model of work. You can also reduce costs and increase productivity by only hiring employees for the hours you need, not all roles need to be covered on a full-time basis.
Research shows that whatever type of business you are in, a team-based approach to flexible working is key. Taking a one size fits all approach doesn’t work. The rationale for this is that your business is made up of different teams, roles and people. By involving your employees, you can shape a new model of work that meets today’s demands. This approach enables you to proactively introduce more flexibility into your business.
You can hold a team discussion which can be with the whole team if you are a micro business, or perhaps with team leaders or managers if your business is bigger, using the steps below to guide the session.
As well as proactively thinking about the changes you may want to introduce to increase flexibility in your business, your employees have the right to request flexible working.
Once you have received an application, you should hold a meeting with the employee to discuss it. Even if you don’t think it’s possible to approve the request, you could still discuss alternatives that may work for you. Perhaps your employee has some great compromise ideas? Try to remain open to finding a solution that works for everyone – that ‘sweet spot’ we talked about at the start of this guide shown on the Venn diagram included above.
You should consider each request individually and if you can’t accommodate it for business reasons right now, it is important you explain that to your employee. There are clear statutory reasons why requests can be declined.
On the other hand, if you accept a flexible working request, you can use the meeting to agree; how it will work, what changes might need to be put in place in the wider team to support the new way of working and when it will be reviewed to make sure it is still fit for purpose in the future.
More information on the law around flexible working.
Informal versus formal flexibility
New arrangements, need to feel fair and flexible to the business, the employee and their team. Informal flexibility (temporary, non-contractual arrangements) can help employers and employees manage last-minute issues and may encourage more flexibility in return. For example, you may need someone to work late on an important customer order, and in return your employee can take time off to attend an event that is important to them, such as a child’s sports day. This doesn’t require a change to a contract and informal flexibility can help change the culture and behaviours in an organisation.
Formal arrangements are those changes that are permanent and change the contract between you and your employee. A formal change provides both parties with certainty and enables everyone to plan but it is important to review working arrangements regularly – if they are no longer working for the business or the employee, you need to discuss what needs to change to get back to the 'sweet spot'.
For flexible working to be successful, you need to be transparent and consistent. This doesn’t mean that everyone needs to have the same way of working. Instead, the boundaries and guidance need to be clear and easily understood, which roles can be done on a reduced hours or job-shared basis versus those that can only be done by someone full-time or which need to be done in the office.
We recommend you have a policy that clearly outlines:
Flexible working can benefit everyone, and trust is the key. If you feel it’s not working well for your business, arrange to have a conversation with your employee(s) and work together to fix the issues.
Invest in employee connectedness
Keep talking to your employees and continue reviewing their arrangements regularly, perhaps once a quarter. Consider what technology can help you stay connected, regardless of when / where everyone is working. The model of work has changed, and workspaces need to change with it. Think about how you will run meetings and activities if your teams work in a hybrid way- some of the team at home and others in the workplace.
Lead by example
Start to structure senior jobs more flexibly to show it can be done. Use recruitment, restructures, and promotions to redesign roles and open them up to flexible working. If you’re working flexibly yourself, be clear about when and how you can be contacted and what to do in an emergency.
Make clear what you expect from your employees and what they can expect from you in return, building trust is important. Try to set a great example by sticking to your flexible arrangement as far as possible. And tell stories of the teams and employees who are getting flexibility right. Success often breeds success.
Flexible working can be a great asset to organisations of all sizes, across all sectors but it is important to invest the time to set it up in the right way. Developing a flexible working policy, enabling team conversations, understanding the regulation, and having a plan that aligns to your business goals are some of the important elements that lead to creating a win: win for your business, your customers, and your employees.