Increased flexibility will be a balancing act for human resources

With all the debate recently about who should champion diversity – and whether human resources should be stripped of its diversity role – the appointment of an HR director to lead the flexible-working debate sends a strong message to the profession.

Sainsbury’s HR director Imelda Walsh will lead an independent review into how the right to request flexible working can be extended, a move that indicates what a pivotal role HR will have in shaping and delivering the flexible working agenda – not just on the panel, but in the organisations you work for.

Cast your eye over reactions to the government’s plan to extend the right to request flexible employment to workers with children up to the age of 16, and there is a clear division between reticent employers’ groups and enthusiastic staff representatives. This cuts to the heart of HR’s role, which is often pulled between the competing demands of being employee champion and deliverer of business strategy.

If the right to request is extended – and this looks likely, given that the government has already said the review will focus on the age limit, not whether it should extend or not – then HR will certainly have its work cut out.

HR will be tasked with the job of defining the business case for increasing flexible working. For some smaller organisations, this may not be a viable option. Then you will have to deal with employees not eligible to request flexible working, and who may feel aggrieved at having to work standard hours. Murmurings of a backlash, which have rumbled on for some time, could well become bellows of discontent that HR departments will have to appease somehow. It looks like there will be some difficult conversations ahead.

So while on moral grounds you may agree that flexi­ble working is a great thing, in practice it’s set to be a huge challenge for HR to balance the needs of employers and staff: one more plate for HR to keep spinning.

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