Achieving the right balance: flexible working policies

Adele
Kimber looks at how organisations are helping line managers to support their
staff with flexible working policies

‘It’s
a good idea but it won’t work here’ is a common retort from managers confronted
with a difficult task. And for HR professionals trying to promote a flexible
working culture, it is the response they often hear from line managers faced
with making the policy work in practice.

New
laws giving staff with young children the right to request flexible working
presents a double challenge for the HR profession. Beyond the obvious
responsibility to meet the legislation, HR teams have an opportunity to go beyond
compliance and deliver a flexible working strategy that improves their
organisation’s competitiveness. Winning the hearts and minds of the line
managers is a crucial part of that challenge.

Line
managers will be the first point of contact for most employees discussing a
flexible working request. Research published on 25 March 2003 by lobby group
Parents at Work, found that the request for flexible arrangements was put to
line managers in 93 per cent of organisations, who either made the decision alone
(46 per cent) or jointly with HR (50 per cent).

But
research published last year by Roffey Park management school, argues that the
prejudices of managers and those working full-time is still one of the biggest
barriers to flexible working. The report, Work-Life Balance: The Role of the
Manager, found that regardless of company policies, managers are likely to have
the most direct effect on the work-life balance of staff.

“When
managers feel empowered by the organisation to allow their staff flexibility,
they tend to encourage their staff to work in such a way as to achieve personal
as well as work goals,” says Roffey Park researcher, Claire McCartney.

She
points out that many employees view the attitudes and behaviour of their
immediate line manager as a good indicator of the culture of an organisation.
Managers who feel the organisation does not give them the autonomy to make
decisions about how and when their team can work, are likely to be uneasy about
allowing unusual arrangements, because they are simply not confident enough to
make the call.

The
Roffey Park report argues that the single most important ingredient in
developing and sustaining a culture supportive of work-life balance, is support
from the top of the organisation.

Marilyn
Tyzack, diversity specialist at the Work Foundation, agrees. She stresses that
ensuring senior level support for flexible working policies is critical to
winning line managers over. “It’s no good just having good policies in place –
you must mean what you say,” she says.

Lloyds
TSB diversity consultant Ryan Lynch, says that work-life balance is now
established as a business issue at the bank. This was only achieved by
top-level commitment to the cause and by the bank playing a part in talking
publicly about its importance.

The
bank’s Work Options scheme, which allows all employees to apply for flexible
working, has been in place since 1999, and now one-third of the bank’s 76,000
staff work flexibly.

At
motor giant Ford, leadership from the top is playing a part in establishing a
formal flexible working policy. Annette Andrews, diversity manager responsible
for work-life issues at Ford Europe, says the company recognised that employees
needed flexible working arrangements, but the challenge was convincing line
managers that it was a good idea.

“We
put the business case into a strategy document arguing that the world of work
is changing and we can use it as an opportunity,” says Andrews. Senior
management bought into the idea and Ford Europe is cascading the principle down
the organisation.

The
Parents at Work report, Right to Request, points out clear business benefits –
such as cost savings and higher returns, improved service delivery, recruitment
and retention of staff and legislative compliance – as important factors to
highlight to managers.

Tyzack
says that a pilot or trial period gives an opportunity to actually prove these
benefits to line managers. Metrics gained from a pilot or a case study from elsewhere
in the business will help to build the case.

“If
you want to have a policy that goes beyond compliance with the new legislation,
you also have to be clear about the business needs. You have to measure that
and show how the business will benefit. Communicating those benefits clearly
and consistently to line managers is key,” she says.

Lloyds
TSB has a website and an HR call centre providing information to line managers,
but Lynch says it is always looking at new ways to engage them. A flexible working
interchange site was launched last November to provide a forum for information
and discussion.

“Our
job is to give managers the tools to manage effectively. There will be some
changes in the process with new legislation, and part of the challenge for HR
is to manage expectations of what this will mean in practice,” he says.

Helping
managers to gain the right skills to cope with flexible working is a key
factor. McCartney points out that many of the skills needed to manage flexible
workers are good basic management skills.

“Line
managers need to be good at scheduling work and setting clear goals and
targets. Trusting staff and creating a culture that empowers them becomes even
more important,” she says.           

Microsoft

Microsoft
staff who want to work flexibly apply directly to director of people, profits
and culture, Steve Harvey (below), rather than to their line manager. Harvey
says this ensures a consistent approach. “A lot of managers say no
instinctively so I am the first point of call,” he says.

Harvey
guarantees a one-week turnaround on a decision. Employees complete a simple
document setting out their request, with details on the business reasons and
how they can support the arrangement. Harvey then discusses the request with
the local HR manager, relevant director and the employee’s immediate manager.

He
says that many of the difficult management issues surrounding flexible working
have been eased by Microsoft’s Superteam concept, which was launched two years
ago and heavily implemented during the past year.

Three
of the four levels of staff at the company have already been through the
training process, beginning with the executives and their teams.

The
idea of a Superteam, which can be a permanent, project or virtual team, is to
set out clear expectations for the performance of all its members.  At a formal team session, the leader says
who they are, what they do and what they expect from the team. Each team then
sets clear goals for each member, based on output, not the hours worked.

Harvey
says that the drive to create a flexible working culture has made ideas such as
the Superteam even more important.

“There
is a clear contract with an employee setting out what they are expected to
deliver. The approach makes it much simpler to manage people who are working
flexibly,” he says.

South
Oxfordshire Council

Line
managers at South Oxfordshire District Council are taking part in training
sessions to understand the council’s drive to create a flexible working
culture, and how its policies dovetail with the new legislation.

The
council introduced an annualised hours scheme at the beginning of the year in a
bid to help its staff balance their work and home lives.

“Some
managers, particularly those running frontline services have had some concerns
about how the scheme will operate, and it is the line manager who has to agree
any new pattern of working. We want to encourage staff to talk through new
working patterns with their colleagues,” says the council’s head of HR, Trevor
Hill (pictured above).

Each
employee is now contracted to work a specified number of hours per year,
instead of measuring working time over a week. Hill says the move gives the
company’s 250 staff more freedom to change their working arrangements to suit
their home lives. Flexible working options available as part of annualised
hours include term-time working and nine-day fortnights.

Part
of the training includes setting up case studies so line managers are more
aware of the positive aspects of being more flexible, and can see how it works
in practice.

Hill
says most of the benefits to staff in the first three months have been
short-term ad hoc benefits, and staff now feel more comfortable asking for time
off.

Ford
Europe

Work-life
workshops, run by the senior managers of each business unit, were used by Ford
Europe to kick-start its flexible working policy. Many of the motor giant’s
employees have worked flexibly for some time, but the company launched a formal
policy late last year.

“The
workshops were used to say to line managers ‘we are empowering you to work with
teams to improve their work life balance’,” explains diversity manager, Annette
Andrews (pictured below).

A
variety of communication tools are used to promote the idea – an in-house magazine,
websites and the company’s in-house TV station all run information on flexible
working, and include role models and interviews with people working flexibly.

“We
have worked hard to make line managers as aware as possible of the policies,”
says Andrews.

Managers
have access to a toolbox setting out just how to manage and implement policies,
such as the practicalities of managing staff who are telecommuting, or how to
make an employee part-time. Andrews says the toolbox helps line managers fully
understand and take ownership of their employees’ working arrangements.

A
flexible working pack is published which duplicates information available on
the web. Both include an application form that helps staff to set out why they
want to work flexibly, how they will make the new arrangements work, and how it
will impact on the business. The aim of the form is to create a structured
conversation between an employee and their manager.

Flexible
working is not yet on offer for manufacturing staff, but it is planned for this
year. “It will be very challenging to get the degree of flexibility that we
want in a shift environment on a production line,” says Andrews.

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