The traditional 9-to-5 is quickly being seen as an archaic working practice.
Flexible working – including home working – is expected to rise significantly once lockdown ends.
And during the latest UK general election, the Labour Party proposed a four-day week, and they also wanted to give workers the right to request flexible working from day one of starting a job. Even though Labour lost the election, we would expect similar policies to crop up in future.
Clearly, the tide is shifting. And it’s not because people are becoming more lazy, or because newer generations want change for change’s sake: the benefits of flexible working are rooted in research.
A major pilot conducted by a financial services company in New Zealand, and monitored by academics at the University of Auckland and Auckland University of Technology, found that working a four-day week increased productivity by 20%, as well as increasing profits and improving staff wellbeing.
Yet whilst the evidence suggests that flexible working practices can bring various benefits, there are issues that many – if not the majority – of organisations in the UK struggle with.
What is flexible working?
‘Flexible working’ is a catch-all term that encompasses various kinds of working practices. These include:
- Working from home on a regular basis
- Zero hours contracts
- Term-time working
- Career breaks
- Commissioned outcomes
- Part-time working
- Compressed hours
- Annual hours
- Job sharing
- Mobile working
These are just some of the most popular methods organisations use to achieve ‘flexible working’, or what some like to call ‘smarter working’. They allow you to empower your people and achieve the kind of success like the company from New Zealand managed, as mentioned at the beginning of this guide.
It’s important to consider the downsides of flexible working practices.
There will be those that take advantage of being able to work from home by slacking off or doing things not related to work. However, they will always be in the minority and you have to look at your work culture to figure out why someone would want to do this.
There is the difficulty of ensuring that flexible workers are fully involved with your company culture and don’t miss out on anything. This is a real risk that you will have to closely monitor and mitigate; taking full advantage of the latest technologies to ensure flexible workers are integrated fully with the non-flexible workforce.
There is also the danger of employees mixing their work and personal lives, and finding it difficult to distinguish between them. As they’re working from home, for some people it can be hard to switch off from work-related issues due to working in their home environment. There can arguably be more distractions in a home environment too, with kids, pets, and other domestic realities getting in the way. The best way to tackle this would be to set firm boundaries, and encourage your flexible workers to clearly demarcate their work and personal lives.
Now that we’ve got the potential negatives out of the way, it’s time to look at the multitude of positives that flexible working arrangements can provide.
1. Employee Retention
This is a critical issue for HR professionals. The good news is that by offering strong flexible working benefits, employees are likely to remain loyal to your organisation, which will make your job a lot easier. A CIPD survey found that 76% of of managers cited employee retention as one of the best benefits of flexible working.
Offering flexible working encourages long-term commitment which, in turn, improves your organisational culture and reduces the associated costs of losing talented workers.
Those who are against flexible working often cite decreased productivity as a reason not to do it. However, like most negative opinions around flexible working, this opinion is rooted in gut feeling rather than research. The statistics show that flexible working enhances productivity. In an HSBC study, 89% of respondents stated that flexible working was a motivation to be more productive at work.
Another study by Stanford University discovered something similar. They studied 16,000 Chinese workers over a period of 10 months, and found that with the employees that worked flexibly from home, their productivity increased by 13%. The flexible workers also reported higher levels of satisfaction with their work and took fewer sick days than their non-flexible colleagues.
With UK productivity infamously lagging behind that of similar developed economies, such as Germany and the United States, perhaps it’s time British organisations look towards innovative work practices.
We mentioned at the start of this article the importance of flexible working to millennials, who represent the largest single generation in the workforce today. As 70% of millennials want flexible working options, offering flexible working is a great way to attract workers of this generation. In addition, a survey by UC EXPO found that 82% of office workers in the UK would choose a position that offers flexible working over one that doesn’t.
Whilst the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of flexible working, there are still many difficulties organisations face in implementing flexible working practices.
There remains an initial reluctance and, in some cases, hostility towards flexible working, particularly in certain industries where ‘old school’ thinking prevails. There is a perception that those who work flexibly are somehow slacking off and, as a consequence, shouldn’t be promoted or receive significant pay rises.
Those in senior positions that hold this view are imposing their own opinions onto their employees; opinions that are baseless and are in conflict with what the data is telling us.
This reluctance is particularly affecting parents who are returning to work. According to a recent study, over 70% of parents said having children has made it more difficult for them to progress in their careers. Over 60% of women also said that they believe that UK companies aren’t family-friendly.
As an HR leader, you need to rail against archaic thinking and espouse the benefits of flexible working, using the wealth of evidence that exists to back up your argument. It should be about results, not about gut feeling.
We’ve already discussed the importance of culture, and how giving employees autonomy can form part of a compelling package of intangible benefits that can increase productivity and motivation.
Holding the point of view that flexible working is detrimental to a business is simply denying what the evidence is telling us. Study after study finds that flexible working boosts employee morale, reduces absenteeism, and enhances a company’s image as being a great place to work. These benefits, combined with the current legal framework that facilitates flexible working requests, as well as the future outlook for flexible working, means that it is something which businesses can no longer ignore, obfuscate, or otherwise brush under the carpet.
How can you help to enact change?
Communication is key. Business leaders and HR professionals need to communicate employees’ rights effectively, ensuring that they know what the law is and that they have the right to request flexible working arrangements.
Rather than resisting change, businesses need to face facts and embrace the benefits that flexible working practices can bring. This feeds into a larger concept of an open, inclusive, forward-thinking work culture that places the wellbeing of employees as the highest priority.
The practical implications & how to solve them
There is currently a private member's bill going through parliament. If it becomes law, employers will have to offer flexible working for every job, unless specific opt-out criteria are met.
This would build upon legislation that’s already in place, which gives employees the right to formally request flexible working arrangements after they’ve been employed with the same company for 26 weeks.
Many HR professionals fear this legislation, as they want to ensure that they are compliant with the law.
Firstly, you have to consider the first flexible working request that is submitted by employees within a 12-month period. You are also only legally obliged to consider requests from employees that have worked for your organisation for at least 26 weeks. Employees can submit multiple requests within a 12-month period, but you only have to legally consider the first request in that period.
Yet the way in which flexible working requests are processed can often be overlooked. In many businesses, there is no clear, specific, and consistent method for flexible working requests to be submitted and processed.
Many organisations will use paper forms or facilitate requests via email, which results in a huge admin burden. Not only that, this represents a significant security risk, as nothing is encrypted and physical documents can be easily lost, stolen, or destroyed. Dealing with lots of requests at the same time using this method is a recipe for disaster, and yet it is a common situation for many organisations in the UK.
It is essential that organisations use a compliance-led, secure, cloud-based HR platform that ensures they stay on the right side of the law, and also ensures that flexible working requests are processed consistently and efficiently.
Your chosen platform should have fully-compliant HR case management functionality, which allows you to create, monitor, and proactively manage the various processes that follow an employee making a flexible working request.
Your solution should also give you the power to decide whether your employees are able to raise a request themselves via a self-service dashboard, or whether to restrict the creation of a case to line managers or HR professionals only.
The process management design should follow these clear steps:
- Request/case recorded
- Eligibility auto-checked
- Meeting(s) scheduled to discuss, if required
- Record outcomes from meeting(s)
- Decision made – approve/reject/trial period
- Trial period review, if appropriate
- Appeal, if rejected
Once a case has been created, the system should check that the employees’ length of service is greater than 26 weeks, check to ensure that no previous requests have been made within the last 12-month period, and should also provide notification alerts and reminders to managers to ensure that the case is heard correctly and concluded within a three-month period, unless agreed otherwise with the employee concerned.
Your chosen solution should also prompt the users for all the necessary and required information, and ask for case notes to include answers to key questions that need to be recorded.
- A suggested effective date for the change
- A description of the changes being suggested to their current working pattern
- A reason for the request being made
- A description of the impact the change would have on the business
The line manager or HR user should be able to easily manage the entire process, end-to-end, by adding multiple comments as required following any and all discussions with the employee, and the employer. They will ultimately record their final decision, which provides an audit trail including the records of ‘who said what to whom, and when’.
Employers can reject an application for any of the following reasons:
- Extra costs that will damage the business
- The work cannot be reorganised among other staff
- People cannot be recruited to do the work
- Flexible working will affect quality and performance
- The business will not be able to meet customer demand
- There’s a lack of work to do during the proposed working times
- The business is planning changes to the workforce
Once the final decision has been made, your system should present a confirmation letter to the manager as the final stage in the process, which would be sent to the employee. A copy of the letter, which is time and date stamped, should be automatically stored against their employee record.
In addition, your HR software should also have the ability for an employee to appeal any decision, which they can do on their own via their self-service portal.
Flexible working requests post-lockdown
The world and the economy will drastically change when COVID-19 abates.
There is a high probability that your organisation will need to overhaul its working practices, and be prepared for a huge influx of remote working requests from employees that have become used to working from home. This is particularly true when the flexible furlough scheme begins on 1 July, when you can expect associated flexible working requests to arrive rapidly.
A valuable way to deal with this outcome is to use a trial period for employees that request to work remotely, which allows both parties to evaluate which changes need to be made and whether it is the best long-term solution.
Currently, if there has been an agreement between the employee and the employer for said employee to work flexibly, the only way to reverse this agreement is to enter another consultation process and come to another agreement. This can be a lengthy and complex procedure, with contract changes required. As a result, companies may be reluctant to enter into a permanent change when they don't know if it will hinder the company's future plans.
A trial period would allow the employee's proposal to be comprehensively analysed before a permanent agreement is made; where practical and beneficial adjustments can be identified that could benefit the initial request.
The fully-compliant flexible working case management functionality in Youmanage supports the use of trial periods, which is a fantastic feature to have at your disposal to deal with a potential increase in flexible working requests.