How to make flexible working work

Claire McCartney looks at the findings of a new report into the practicalities of introducing a flexible working policy

Flexible working is working. A recent survey published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) shows that two-thirds of UK organisations support proposals for extending flexible working legislation to include more people, and 46 per cent would like to see the right offered to all workers.

Currently, parents of children under six or disabled children under 18 have the right to apply to work flexibly and their employers have a duty to consider these requests seriously.

A key question, therefore, is how are organisations tackling this increased level of flexibility and making it work for both their business and their employees?

A Roffey Park research report, Making Flexible Working Work, seeks to answer that very question. The research, which was sponsored by Ford, was conducted through organisational case studies with six companies – Ford, outsourcing firm Vertex, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, the Legal Services Commission, pharmaceuticals company Lilly UK and East Sussex County Council. All offer a range of flexible working options, including informal and formal flexibility, job sharing, an extended or compressed working week, self-managed team-working, formal and ad hoc home-working, flexitime, term-time working and career breaks.

All the organisations involved have sound business reasons for implementing flexible working schemes and believe that allowing staff to work in new ways will benefit their efficiency, competitiveness and, ultimately, improve the bottom line.

HR’s flexible working challenge

Unsurprisingly, implementing and maintaining flexible working initiatives has not been plain sailing and many of the organisations have faced a number of challenges and learnt some valuable lessons along the way.

A key challenge is sharing the best practice already taking part in pockets of the business. In a number of organisations, individual teams or departments have created innovative working environments and practices around flexible working, but this is happening in isolation. It is vital that the rest of the business learns from this and starts using similar practices.

It is also important to emphasise which areas of the business are suited to flexible working from the outset. Communicating via job descriptions those areas that are able to support flexible working can help to retain valued employees who are more likely to make a horizontal move than actually leave the organisation.

Unsupportive managers are cited frequently in the research as a real blocker to creating a flexible environment. Coaching managers is therefore vital and will help to produce a consistent and fair approach across the entire organisation.

Organisations also need to reinforce the message that taking up formal policies will not harm career progression.

Many employees, especially managers, are reluctant to formalise flexible working for this reason. For many that have, the lack of career progression is viewed as a ‘trade off’ for the flexibility they are given. To overcome this, there needs to be more evidence of senior role models working flexibly and more evidence of flexible workers and part-time staff getting promoted.

Finally, there needs to be greater consideration and awareness of flexible workers’ needs with regards to providing support, training and arranging meetings. Team routines must be adapted so that all can attend and fully contribute.

The role of HR

The Roffey Park research suggests that a partnership approach is needed if flexible working is to succeed. Leaders, managers and individuals all have their role to play. However, the findings do highlight the critical role that HR can play in developing, facilitating and maintaining an organisational culture supportive of flexible working.

Encourage ownership of change among different stakeholders

HR should ensure senior leaders show strong commitment to the process and the changes that are necessary to make flexible working work. To this end, Vertex has encouraged two board members, the HR director and finance director to become sponsors for work-life balance.

It is also important to empower employees to craft flexible solutions themselves. When employees have a vested interest in planning their schedules, they are more concerned about coming up with creative solutions. The Legal Services Commission ran a number of focus groups on how to enhance customer service within the regional office. The response from staff was that the office should extend its opening hours. When asked how this enhanced service could be made to work, the staff suggested using more flexible work arrangements.

Create forums to identify needs and ideas

Try to work in partnership with trade unions, employee forums and professional associations to understand the broader views and concerns of employees. Consider setting up groups that can gather employee views and ideas and feed these back to senior management. Ford has set up a number of different employee resource groups (including a parents’ network, African and Asian groups, and a women’s group). This enables employees from common backgrounds to come together, share experiences and feed that information back into the organisation.

Communicate the aims and benefits of flexible work arrangements

Encourage better communication between employers, managers and employees so that employees and line managers are aware of organisational policies. Avoid long lists of policies and confusing names.

Use a number of different channels to communicate the aims of flexible working and the options on offer. The diversity team at Ford communicates via a dedicated in-house magazine, departmental meetings, employee letters, newsletters, bulletin boards, videos and roadshows.

Provide open access to information

Make it easy for employees to gain information on the work arrangements available in the organisation. The HR department at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory is supporting the introduction of a new flexible working scheme through the provision of written procedures, checklists and guidance for managers.

Clearly signpost positions that are suitable for flexible work arrangements – link these to competency frameworks and/or job family information.

Create open and transparent processes for requesting changes to work arrangements including what happens if requests cannot be met. Ford has developed a flexible working information pack to guide managers and employees through the application for flexible working. The pack contains specific information and guidance for employees, including examples of flexible working arrangements, the request process and how to adjust or change a flexible work arrangement.

Educate and train managers

Provide regular briefings to bring managers up to speed with changing legislation relating to flexible working. The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory uses management briefings to inform staff about procedures around the flexible working legislation and to address any issues and concerns they might have.

Develop workshops to help managers manage from a distance. Ford runs an in-house workshop on how to work flexibly and how to manage flexible workers.

Develop experienced flexible workers to act as mentors to individuals new to flexible working and provide coaching for line managers who are finding it difficult to adjust to new ways of working. Develop a team of senior managers to coach others.  

Provide training and on-going support for flexible workers

Develop workshops to educate supervisors and staff on how a flexible working programme works and set out the differing responsibilities needed to make it work effectively.

Run work-life-balance workshops for all employees, thus providing individuals with the time to reflect on what work-life balance means to them and how to achieve the balance they need. A number of the case study organisations use Work-life Balance Week in the first week of September to schedule different work-life balance activities, ranging from alternative health sessions, personal finance and innovative ways of working.

Provide training and/or refresher training in technologies to support virtual team working – for example, the use of e-mail, electronic diaries, electronic conferencing facilities and electronic whiteboards.

Regularly evaluate what is and isn’t working and share success stories

Make time to look at what makes the policies work in certain areas of the organisation, and what is preventing them from working in other areas.  

Share success stories. Get hesitant managers beyond the myths of managing flexible workers by documenting stories in newsletters and encouraging everyone to try it. Lilly UK shares its success stories through a number of different means including its HR website, employee testimonials and the ‘best boss’ award.

Implementing and managing flexible working arrangements creates challenges for organisations. For HR, it is important to take the time to discuss and iron out job responsibilities at the outset of the change process, as well as ensuring that there are ongoing forums for reviewing how the arrangements are working in practice. However, the Roffey Park research suggests that the benefits for the business and the individual are well worth the effort.

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