These are the thoughts and takeaways from the latest HR Business Partner Think Tank (HRBPTT) held on Thursday 4th December 2014 hosted by Bloomberg’s, Lucy Mills (HR Manager) titled ‘Innovation and Efficiency in Flexible Working’.
The following summary has been prepared to reflect a segment of the discussion held amongst senior HR professionals from leading national and international businesses. Specific company details, experiences and examples have been omitted from this summary as all discussions are held under ‘Chatham House Rules’.
Due to new legislation updates, flexible working is currently high on the agenda for many UK businesses. More and more companies are considering flexible working options because they now have to. However, there are many potential business drivers for offering more than the bare minimum requirements, such as achieving competitive advantage – which is especially relevant in the current candidate driven market. The following summary will discuss best practice and challenges within flexible working programmes. However, it is worth bearing in mind that flexible working arrangements may have differing levels of success depending on the type of company. These notes offer general guidelines which would need to be adapted to the particular industry.
NB – it is important to note the difference between flexible working and agile working as both are discussed in this summary. Agile working is being able to access company systems and work regardless of the employee’s location. Flexible working is flexibility in the time / days someone works. The two of these often complement each other.
How can flexible working benefit the business?
As in many HR initiatives, the main factor of success behind a flexible working programme is senior management buy-in. Therefore a business case, using the below points, needs to be developed and communicated when intending to introduce flexible working programmes.
- Talent attraction – candidates may well now expect flexible working options
- Retention of top talent – combating when employees might want to leave due to a change in their life circumstances or the company moving location
- Wellbeing and happiness of employees
- Lower overhead costs – less office space may be needed
- International flexibility – the shift towards the growing number of global companies has created a higher demand for flexible working, as well as an improvement in technology and access to company systems. Working in a global organisation can also mean that employees stay later for calls with other country divisions and therefore offering flexibility in the hours they work is a good way to cater for this
- Brand image – if a company is the first to have flexible working processes they may be regarded as more innovative and flexible as both a customer and employer brand. If they are the only company in their industry not doing it they may be seen as being behind the times
- Disaster recovery – flexible and agile working would mean that employees have the technology to access systems wherever and whenever, even when, for example, they cannot get into an office due to a natural disaster or transport failure
- Complementing differing working styles – businesses need to recognise individual differences. Some people work better in the morning, some work better in complete silence and some in an open, buzzy environment. Being flexible about where and when employees work and monitoring them on their output can allow them to work where and when they work best whilst making sure they are still performing
- Diversity strategy – offering flexibility may help with things such as increasing the number of women in a business
- It is not for everyone and this needs to be considered when developing a flexible working programme
- Employee engagement – sometimes that face to face contact, especially whilst communicating things such as praise, is crucial in creating buzz, enthusiasm and engagement amongst employees
- Loss of a clear employer brand and the feeling of being part of something
- Possible reduction in work quality due to loss in collaboration and sharing of ideas in real time
- Balancing the needs of employees vs the needs of the commercial business/customers. Making sure this balance is right is crucial for the business and makes it more likely to get managers on board rather than seeing flexible working in a negative light due to it impacting their team’s performance
- If offering compressed hours to some people it can be seen as unfair when others in the organisation work just as long hours but a 5 day week and don’t get a day off
- Changing the perception, especially in line managers, that flexible working is only for working mothers
- Changing perceptions that senior managers are expected to always be first in and last out the office, whereas they should also be just as entitled to flexible working and be championing it
- How to keep consistency in the policy when departments and individuals have such different needs?
- Deciding on whether to have a formal policy or allow it to be a case by case decision made by the line manager
- Graduates – often need more support and teaching from their managers which means that flexible working may not suit them or be suitable for their manager
- Trust that employees will get the job done
Flexible Working Programme – Best Practice
As discussed before the need for a flexible working programme is very dependent on the type of business and market it sits in. For some companies it is extremely necessary to offer flexible working due to the reasons stated above. However, for others it is more of a ‘nice to have’. Understanding the needs and priorities of stakeholders is the first step to deciding on what type of flexible working programme needs to be offered. After this is analysed, an educated decision can be made on how much time and money should be put into creating a flexible working programme.
Also previously mentioned is the fact that people have different working styles and flexible or agile working will suit some much better than others. Therefore assessing how suitable flexible working is for teams is essential. This could be done via a questionnaire when flexible working is requested or when someone joins the business. The questions could discover the employee’s working style and then the best setup for them could be decided on to ensure maximum productivity and happiness for the employee. Trial periods, based on output and manager and employee feedback, are often a good way to access if flexible or agile working is right for someone. For some managers less open to the possibility of flexible working setting up a few trial periods and case studies may be more likely to get them on board before allowing their whole team these options.
As discussed earlier one of the worries of companies introducing flexible working is the loss of engagement, face to face time and collaboration. In order to combat this companies / departments should arrange huddles in which all team members need to be in the office on a certain day to have an overall catch up and discussion. This also leads to people being more accessible for meetings that day. Team huddles should be motivational and informative to help keep engagement and a ‘buzz’ for the company and work. Other team days could also be arranged such as philanthropy days. Helping charities and the community can be a good way to create team bonding and engagement as well as improve the employer brand both internally and externally. However, flexible working may not be suitable for people who are new to the business as there needs to have been some initial bonding and getting to know each other when employees start. It is important they make face to face relationships with their team before then moving to a more virtual relationship. New members have a lot to learn about the business and therefore need their team around to teach them, embed them and bond. Companies can set a policy for flexible and agile working such as employees need to be in the office at least 3 days a week (unless they have different circumstances such as being a primary carer).
Sometimes flexible / agile working programmes are not necessarily about allowing people to be out of the office more. It may also be about offering different environments to work in within the office, for example quiet areas and relaxation zones. It is essential to not forget about long term employees when offering improvements as they may well be creatures of habit and want to be keep exactly what they already have.
For businesses a big worry in introducing flexible working is trusting that employees will still get the work done when not working the traditional 9 to 5 that many companies have always expected. To ensure team members know what they should be doing and managers are happy they are doing it, measuring performance on output is key. Flexible working can even be offered as a reward for high performers to encourage output. Communication and transparency for what is expected and what impact there will be for the employee is key within flexible working programmes. Flexible workers should have someone who takes responsibility for them, whether this be a line manager, buddy or member of HR. This person should constantly check in with how they are getting on in terms of output and how they are finding flexible working is suiting them. The change in dynamic can sometimes lead to high levels of stress for employees, so it is crucial they are supported with this.
Technology plays a huge role in developing flexible and agile working programmes. The methods that suit teams best need to be available. For example some people find that video calls are much more effective than just phone calls due to being able to see body language as well as ensuring that all members are concentrating on the meeting.
When deciding on budget and equipment for agile working it is important to define who is a mobile worker and who is a home worker. Some companies state that home workers work from home 4 days a week and therefore offer them money to set up a working environment such as an office at home and offer health and safety checks.
If a company wants to offer flexible working the culture and attitude of employees and managers needs to support this. This can often mean a cultural shift, especially for firms such as law firms, which needs to be done by clear communication of how the policy will work for employees and the company and what the benefits are. As stated before understanding the business and employee needs is key. It may well be that a job may need 3 solid nearly 24 hour days but then culture needs to encourage staff to take the rest of the week off if they have worked these sorts of hours.
Options for flexible working programmes
- Informal / formal policy for how people should make requests – important to have flexibility in strategy as no ‘one hat fits all’
- Compressed working
- Job sharing – this can create costs due to having to pay for 6 days work rather than 5 for a hand over day. However, it can bring two sets of different skills to one job, even allowing the job to be divided up into two parts to suit each skillset better
- Assessments of home working set up
- Assessment of suitability for types of flexible working
- Technology support