Flexible working can benefit a business as well as its employees

The government extended its flexible working laws to the parents of older children on 6 April. This means that staff with children aged under 17 have the statutory right to ask to adapt their working patterns to suit their needs, such as going part-time, staggering their hours or home-working. If managed well, this can have a positive impact for the business as well as the staff. These 10 steps will help employers to adapt.

1 Accept that flexible working is a fact of life: it’s only going to become more common. Look at how flexible working could benefit your business and how your employees would like to work and see if you can marry the two. Perhaps flexibility will enable you to keep the office open for longer and improve the service to your clients. Or you could organise hours to meet project deadlines and peaks and troughs in workloads.

This could help productivity to go up, not down, and reduce costs such as overtime as well as absenteeism. Also, you will be improving staff morale.

2 People have the right to request flexible working, rather than the right to work flexibly. That means employers have a duty to consider such a request but if the proposal would be detrimental to the business, you can say no.

The right to request flexible working was introduced in 2003 for parents of children aged up to six and disabled children up to 18 and was extended to carers in 2007. From 6 April, employment law changed so that all parents and carers with children under 17 have the right to ask to work flexibly, provided they are not an agency worker and have been with the employer for 26 weeks continuously before applying.

3 The flexibility you can offer depends on the person’s role. For example, a receptionist couldn’t practically work from home but other options may be possible. People have to be reasonable about their requests.

Types of flexible working fall into four categories: duration (part-time, job-share, voluntary reduced hours); timing (flexitime, shifts, compressed or annualised hours); location (home- working, remote working, virtual working); and shared control (self-rostering or rostering as a team).

4 There are three key principles to setting up flexible working:

  • The needs of the business come first: any changes should maintain or improve productivity or service provision.
  • Teams not individuals: avoid dealing with individual requests. Instead give teams shared responsibility for finding flexible working solutions which meet the needs of the business and, as far as possible, enable all team members to have an improved work/life balance. This hands control to the staff rather than placing it on a manager’s shoulders. Many managers resist flexible working because they see it as difficult to organise.
  • New working patterns are subject to trial, typically for three months: during that time people affected should have the right to demonstrate how the new arrangement is improving – or otherwise – their circumstances and the impact on the business.

5 Offer everyone the same opportunities, within a set framework. Setting up deals with individuals, or following the letter of the law and allowing only parents to work flexibly, can create resentment and put unfair pressure on members of the team who don’t have the right to request it.

6 Treat all requests for flexible working equally. Don’t rate Jim’s request to leave early for the school run over John’s desire for Wednesday afternoons off to play golf. People shouldn’t have to give reasons if they don’t want to. If you allow teams to take the decisions, you will find that colleagues tend to be sympathetic to each other’s needs and accommodate them.

7 Don’t allow flexible working to become inflexible. Working patterns should be reviewed for new projects and when new members join a team, and at least annually. You often won’t need to alter an employee’s conditions of contract if you allow them to work flexibly.

8 Policies come after trials, not before. Many companies fall down here because they do it the wrong way round. Policies should reflect working practice rather than dictate it.

9 Set up measures to assess whether flexible working is working. These should be quantitative (has productivity increased?) as well as soft (do you feel happier in your job?). Positive results should help to convince doubting managers who would prefer to keep to traditional working practices.

10 Set up protocols for communication. For example, everyone attending a weekly meeting. If people are working different hours, in different places, communication can break down.