Flexible working: seven ways for HR to make the business case

The Children and Families Act will extend the right to request flexible working to all employees and introduce a right to shared parental leave, but flexible working is not just about parents and children, nor is it solely about minimum legal compliance.

Used strategically, flexible working practices can improve employee engagement and productivity. This was the message at a seminar for HR directors held in May 2014 in London, organised by recruitment consultancy Better Placed HR.

HR directors who participated agreed that flexible working is under-utilised, yet a wide range of trends are driving the need to embrace it. Organisations need to become more flexible to meet operational demands and customer expectations, as well as to improve employee engagement, productivity and retention. Other drivers include the demand by both younger and older workers for more flexible ways of working and the availability of technology to support this.

flexible working benefits

A survey of employers by XpertHR in 2013 found that almost half (47.8%) have up to 20% of their staff working flexibly. The most popular forms of flexible working in the survey were part-time hours and flexitime, whereas more radical forms of flexible working, such as mobile working, full-time homeworking and job sharing, were used by less than 2% of participants.

According to founding director of Good Work Consulting Sally Gray, who spoke at the seminar, the benefits of flexible working include:

  • increased employee productivity;
  • effective virtual teams;
  • meeting customer and operational needs;
  • reduced business travel;
  • agile office space and infrastructure;
  • attraction and retention of senior executives;
  • more senior women;
  • increased engagement;
  • greater employee retention;
  • flexible retirement; and
  • generational working styles.

However, there are many barriers to effective use of flexible working. Here, we present seven arguments that HR can use to make the business case to senior managers, line managers and employees.

1. Organisations need to stop measuring the hours people work and start quantifying outcomes

There is an assumption that because people are in the office from 9am to 5pm they are being productive, whereas employers do not trust employers to get on with their work when they are at home. Instead of rewarding the number of hours people work, employers should quantify the value of outputs, says Peter Thomson, a consultant on agile working and co-author of “Future Work”.

Being an “excellent” employee should be rated on a broad spectrum of hard and soft measures of contribution. The long-hours culture should be challenged. Being always “on” is a law of diminishing returns for anyone. Employees want to be treated as individuals.

Introducing flexible working for employees across an organisation shows that it is more than a gender issue or a policy for parents. It will increase diversity – for example, by increasing the number of women in senior roles, which could help mitigate the brain drain at senior levels. Wilson Wong, head of Insight and Futures at the CIPD, challenged rules and policies that apply to all: “We have a single rule and that helps us govern our workforce. Of course it’s easier, but does it work?”

2. Flexible working helps organisations recruit the best people for the role

As job candidates increasingly request flexible working, it is putting the idea on a more comfortable footing for employers. Employers need to see the benefits of promoting flexible working in terms of an employee value proposition that will attract more talented people.

Employers could also take a more flexible approach during the hiring process. Wong says: “You want to have a good spread of talent. Why would I want to filter applicants out of the pipeline because I’ve got a budget for a full-time member of staff and applicants want to work part time or job share?”

Claudie Plen of Openness Consulting says that employers should see the advantages that two individuals can bring to the role: “You’re not looking to recruit two of the same person for the job – instead you get complementary skills and two times the number of skills.”

3. Employers must learn to trust their employees and stop trying to control them

HR should challenge organisational culture based on presenteeism and promote a culture of trust. It is time to start treating employees as adults. Where there is a lack of awareness about the benefits of flexibility, HR should encourage managers and colleagues to talk openly about concerns and perceptions. Wong says: “On a macro level we are all being expected to manage our lives, pensions and careers, and there’s a disconnect with how organisations work. Organisations are asking for innovation and thinking outside the box, but only if you stay in the box.”

He adds: “Where it works is if employees are valued rather than monitored, clocked and measured in a micro-management way.”

4. Flexible working helps employers accommodate the needs of different generations

Traditional command and control structures do not reflect what many young people want who are entering the workforce. There is a perception that younger employees do not want a job for life or to be judged on the number of hours they put in.

At the same time, many employees who are over 50 are interested in portfolio roles or in pursuing interests outside work as they approach retirement.

5. Technology is making flexible working easy

Software enables employees to communicate and work in any locality using a range of mobile technology, including Skype, email, telephone and video conferencing. Hot desking can result in significant cost savings in office space and equipment. Technology also allows employees to fit work around demands outside work.

6. Flexible working starts at the top of the organisation

Flexible working will not work without sponsorship from senior management. HR needs to make the business case and demonstrate how working flexibly will give the business a competitive edge, using data to back up the argument. This often means that leaders themselves need to change how they think and work.

Flexible working programmes cannot be implemented without guidance and support, and HR must work with colleagues in IT and the business to create support platforms.

7. Flexible working is not career suicide

One of the myths about flexible working is that it holds back individuals from progressing because they are seen as lacking commitment. HR has a role to play in challenging these assumptions, through culture change and by putting in place new measures to prove the value that employees add.

The seminar “Neglected Talent – Flexible, smarter working – Is this the key to business success?” took place in London on 6 May 2014, and was organised by Better Placed HR. HR and recruitment leaders from organisations including AIG, Thomson Reuters, RBS, Santander and Revlon took part.

One Response to Flexible working: seven ways for HR to make the business case

  1. Mabes 22 May 2014 at 4:51 pm #

    HR also needs to lead by example. There are worryingly few part-time HR roles out there, particularly considering how female dominated HR is. I was forced out of a HR advisory level position in the public sector after having a child, because the senior HR bods above me were convinced you could not perform in a HR role on a part-time basis. It’s taken me over two years to finally find a permanent part-time HR job – there are so few advertised and not one employer advertising a full-time HR role was willing to consider part-time. How can HR preach on this if it’s practice is so poor?