Selling to the sceptics

Are Britain’s HR managers ready to implement the new right to request
flexible working? Compiled by Phil Boucher

Laurence Collins, general manager, lifeworks, Centrefile

Flexible working is the latest piece of employment legislation to loom
ominously over the heads of UK employers. From 6 April, employers will have a
statutory responsibility to consider requests from employees who want to make
their employment more flexible. Principally, this will involve varying the
employee’s hours or place of work so that they are better able to care for a
child under the age of six or a disabled child under 18.

In some companies, this may precipitate a cry of ‘that’s unreasonable!’ to
bounce around the walls of the boardroom. Particularly if the board believes
the firm’s competitive edge will be undermined by the changes this brings to
working practices.

Not for the first time, HR will find itself in the unenviable position of
having to champion a cause unlikely to be welcomed with open arms by anyone
other than its target audience – parents. Indeed, it may well cause envy and
resentment among the majority who are not eligible. But despite the haunting
familiarity of having to sell a people issue to a sceptical management, HR
seems to have no option but to pick up the gauntlet if it wishes to be

To succeed, HR must focus on communicating with line management. Let them
know that new legislation is on its way. Inform them it is only a right to
request, rather than a right to be given, a flexible working arrangement. And,
that if it is used effectively, the new law could have a positive impact on
organisational performance.

HR professionals will also have to equip managers with the skills, systems
and processes needed to evaluate workers’ requests. Too many firms currently
tackle flexible working requests on an hoc basis, usually as a result of the
"I’m thinking of leaving unless…" conversation. Obviously, this adds
little from a strategic perspective.

Therefore, the real HR challenge is to develop a flexible working strategy
that brings employees to a state of compliance and adds to a company’s
competitiveness. And given the increasing demand from the workforce for greater
flexibility and work-life balance, HR should seize this as a golden opportunity
to challenge dated perceptions around work design and working patterns.

The key to making this transition is to create desirable flexible working
options, and introduce a robust, business-oriented process that provides a
framework for considering requests in a fair manner. But all this comes with a
health warning: if line managers don’t have the competence to manage a flexible
working system, the boardroom fears of a negative impact will be realised.

Dawson, principal personnel consultant, RebusHR

with all new legislation, HR’s first job is to ensure it fully understands the
content and the new requirements it will place on the employer and employees.
For HR staff in organisations that have already adopted family-friendly
initiatives, the implications may be minimal and restricted to some fine-tuning
of existing policies and procedures. Those that aren’t should sit down and
thrash out some new policies and procedures.

before these are compiled, it is essential that HR fully understands the
benefits flexible working can bring. It will then have to think about how it
can sell these benefits to senior management, who will understandably want to
retain their current working practices. Similarly, employees need to understand
there is no legal entitlement to have their request automatically agreed.

Barton, director, RightCoutts

is an ideal time for employers to consider the wider aspects of work-life
balance, the needs of employees and the positive enhancements that can be
obtained by embedding this within company culture.

are a growing number of employees with care responsibilities, and a greater
proportion of working women. And over recent years, there has also been a
marked change in attitude away from total dedication to the workplace. Recent
surveys have shown that many employees would prefer to have more work-life
balance than a salary increase.

legislation provides an opportunity for employers to bring bottom line benefits
to a firm through a creative set of flexible policies. Work carried out by
RightCoutts with various private and public sector organisations has shown that
this brings dramatic improvements in retention, absence levels and morale.

Borrett, HR consultant, TPS Consulting

could find itself in the front line of dealing with disgruntled employees once
this legislation takes effect. Those with older children, people with elderly
parents or other caring responsibilities, or those who just have other
interests they would like to fit into their lives, may feel resentment that
their employer won’t consider flexible working for them too.

a good work-life balance is beneficial to businesses as well as employees, and
government funding of the DTI WLB Challenge Fund seems to indicate that it
thinks it is, why would an organisation restrict flexible working to just
parents of young children?

flexible working scheme open to all, and based on the construction of a
business case, is likely to lead to better recruitment and retention of valued
employees. It will also reduce discontent among non-parents.

Waters, director of people networks, BT

legislation will put employers under a duty to consider requests for flexible
working – including alternative working patterns, term-time working or
annualised hours. It may also include requests to work from home.

existing policy already provides a range of flexible working solutions for its
staff and at best, the new legislation simply formalises these arrangements. BT
has embraced flexibility as a real means of enhancing the bottom line and can
prove it works – its 6,000-plus home workers have sustained an average
productivity increase of 20 per cent while saving BT £45m a year in real estate
and business efficiency savings.

has been possible by the creation of an agile and inclusive business culture
that promotes flexibility to everyone on business rationale, rather than
individual status.

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