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Flexible Working – Time to Change the Narrative

Gemma Dale
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When flexible working legislation was first introduced in the UK, it was aimed initially at the parents of young children. This was later extended to include carers, those with older children, and then everyone. Contributor Gemma Dale – Senior HR Professional and Consultant.

But it is of course just a right to request – not to have.  However, whilst the legislation has moved on, in practice flexible working is still seen as a family friendly initiative – not something that could be of benefit, or desirable, to everyone in an organisation, whatever their personal circumstances.

Barriers to flexible working are many, and can include line manager reluctance, myths and stereotypes (including that if you want to work flexibly you are somehow less committed or ambitious), fear of setting precedents and ingrained traditional working practices.  The traditional office working pattern originated decades ago – but work has changed and it’s time that organisations caught up.

The 9-5 Monday to Friday pattern is a tradition – but if we consider it practically it is a tradition that makes little sense for our technology enabled world – and does not fit with what many want from work today.  Instead of being all about parents, flexible working should be reframed as a talent, wellbeing and inclusion issue.  A tactic for talent acquisition and retention, as well as a key driver for employee engagement and motivation. A way to deepen and broaden the talent pool – and at the same time support employees in finding a better life work balance.

Of course there is more to true flexible working than reducing hours, going part-time or working one day a week from home (which is often how it is perceived).  In its most broad definition, it is about adopting an agile mindset.  Allowing employees to do their best work, where and when it works for both them – and the organisation.

Long commutes can be stressful and expensive for staff, taking a toll on mental health and finances alike. Public transport during rush hour can be impossible for those with physical disabilities. People already working flexibly might be reluctant to apply for roles in organisations where flexibility isn’t expressly advertised.  Employees can be reluctant to apply for it, should it impact their career.

Instead, by thinking a little differently about flexibility and looking at the individual and the specific role they undertake, we can leverage a range of organisational benefits including improved wellbeing, enhanced commitment, motivation and engagement – as well as opening up our organisation to potential new talent.

So just what can be done? First of all, HR needs to review its policies, and stop relying on the statutory minimum framework. Policy can’t change your culture, but it does set the tone within your organisation. So start here and ask yourself this key question: does your flexible working policy encourage requests, or simply provide a list of reasons to say no?

There is plenty more besides that HR can do to support a culture of flexible working.  Consider promoting success stories from staff who are already working flexibly.  Help managers understand how to manage flexible and mobile workers through training and on-going support.

Challenge managers who are keen to say no, and instead encourage trials and experiments of new ways of working. Advertise jobs as being open to flexible working and encourage hiring managers to have open dialogue during the recruitment process – give candidates the permission to ask.  Make sure that your flexible working policies are available for job applicants on your website.  Provide practical guidance to managers on how to manage requests and undertake effective trials.

Finally, embrace and use the technology that most of us already have. 

Some employers are already adopting more agile working practices.  When you have employees who genuinely don’t need to sit at the same desk each day, and don’t need to work 9-5 either – why would they require them to do so? Instead, progressive employers trust their staff to work where, and indeed when, they feel that they need to in order to be most effective.  This might be in the office, but equally it might be in the offices of an internal client, a co-working space or at home.  It might mean working around the school run, or simply when employees feel most creative and focused. Making this work may only require the provision of guidance to everyone and support for managers in how they will can think differently about how they manage in the day to day.

You don’t need to have all the answers, or everything worked out in a formal policy.  Instead, try new ways of working.  Be open with everyone that you will work together on how to get the best out of a more flexible working model for the benefit of employees and the organisation alike.

Of course, flexible working does not exist in a vacuum.Whilst it isn’t all about being family friendly, demand is likely to be high in these groups. Flexible working policies will have most effect when they sit in a culture that supports all family and parents – and where there is high trust too. For trust is at the heart of flexible working.  Trusting that people are where they say they are, will do what they need to do  – but is sometimes the hardest shift of all.

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