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 last week (March 25)
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
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.
staff who want to work flexibly apply directly to director of people, profits
and culture, Steve Harvey, 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
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
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
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
"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.
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.
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.
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.