RSS Feed

Previous Roundtables

Flexible Working – Part 2 – Manchester – Roundtable Report

28 June 2012     Manchester
Hosted by theHRDIRECTOR.
Chaired by Jason Spiller.

DELEGATES
Karen Fletcher, Partner –Employment –Shoosmiths
Katherine Holden, Senior HR Business Partner – Molson Coors Brewing Company
Harj Kilshaw, HR Business Partner – DWF LLP
Liese Lord, HR Strategic Business Partner – Pitney Bowes Ltd
Craig Lunnon, HR Consulting Lead in the North – PricewaterhouseCoopers
Keith Smith, Independent HR Consultant
Jill Maples, Senior HR Business Partner – o2 Business
Malcolm Hill, Account Director – Public Sector, o2 UK
Nigel Dutton, Head of Tactical Marketing – Telefónica UK Limited
Peter Banks, Managing Director – theHRDIRECTOR

The second roundtable focusing on flexible working was hosted in Manchester. Contributors from a broad range on organisations provided their experiences in the challenges and opportunities associated with changing cultures, mind-sets as well as operations and technologies required to achieve successful flexibility in the workplace.

With a significant shift in working culture what are the key challenges facing employers building platforms, and what are the effective strategies towards achieving a sustainable and optimised agile workforce?

Jill Maples: o2 UK underwent a consolidation of our three offices into one, and it made us look at working practices. We have created a fantastic working environment in Slough, and different working practices, with two types of workers; “desk huggers” and “desk hoppers”, essentially people who don’t need to be in the office full-time, and those that can have a permanent desk, desk huggers. This has been quite an interesting concept from a Leadership perspective, as they may not have their team sat around them, but it’s not just about how we work, it’s the cultural change that we’ve embedded. You can really see and feel that cultural difference.

Craig Lunnon: We’ve just done some research on people born between 1989 and 2000 millennials, this group are saying technology, flexibility, mentoring, development opportunity and career growth are important. For this generation, there are no work/life boundaries, they want to work whenever it suits them. So if you don’t recognise and set your policies, procedures and working practises to suit those expectations, you’re not going to be successful.

Peter Banks: Of course, but surely it has to be about what the business needs first, flexible working needs to be built around that.

Keith Smith: There are two ways of looking at flexible working, one is from the perspective of the individual, you know, legal rights that people have to request flexible working and secondly how the organisation furthers that with a more strategic view on flexibility, and that has to be based on flexibility for everybody, and it’s interesting to see how that changes the dynamic. Following the broader flexible working changes, it has to be based on mutual understanding, individuals making flexible working requests and managers making a call on what can be accommodated. There are good benefits as it begins to enhance the diversity of inclusion, of gender as well, because you’ve built that broader infrastructure.

Harj Kilshaw: I think in terms of cultural change there is also another key group of people that we need to consider, clients and customers who are interested in a firm’s environmental credentials and carbon footprint. I think it really benefits organisations to demonstrate that they are embracing flexible working.

Karen Fletcher: Many clients I advise have flexible working policies which apply to all employees and find that it works better than those companies who only offer flexible working in accordance with strict legal requirements. Another point to consider is changing the culture of managers as well. It’s about educating managers to show that it can actually be a very positive experience.

Jill Maples: Something interesting to share with you a trial we are doing in a couple of our retail stores. We are working with an organisation called Mumsnet. Basically we have recruited four right skills and behaviour, and we let them manage the hours they work between them. All we ask is that all the hours are covered and the manager knows who to expect in work and when.

Liese Lord: We’ve done a very similar thing with our engineer workforce which was previously a 100 percent male  we had a problem with geographical coverage and a need for more people, but not necessarily greater resource levels. We now have about ten percent as flex workers and also have female engineers in the team. These flex contracts enable us to have the ability to cover additional resource requirements at basic rate, so the business cost impact is better than traditional overtime.

Katherine Holden: I think the challenge that we have is, how do you engage all of the workforce in what they may perceive as being lip service to flexible working/work life balance. In pockets of the business, there’s still a perception that it’s only people with children that get flexibility, but our policy is flexible working for all. The challenge is how we share the flexible working stories.

And so flexible working happens perhaps more freely if you don’t force the agenda.

Katherine Holden: You can’t say to people “you must do this” as they might not want to. Some people want to work ninetofive, others may want to work from eight, you have to be flexible with flexibility, and getting leaders in the business to work flexibly is the best role model.

Keith Smith: It’s important to work with employee representatives and get employee input, in a very interactive way to inform the decisions and setting the right infrastructure.

Craig Lunnon: Bringing in flexible working, you are raising the risk in an organisation, the traditional way of working is far lower risk, people have a more rigid structure, and it’s much harder to measure people on pure output.

Jill Maples: In a flexible environment, you’ve got to trust your employees and leaders have to be totally behind it driving the culture that allows the flexibility. You can always find ways of measuring people.

What does the ideal line management setup look like when people aren’t in the line of sight?

Jill Maples: Again, trust! My manager doesn’t manage me any differently to how he managed me before. Sure, as a communication business we’ve got the equipment to work flexibly, connect with one another and have conference calls and virtual meeting rooms. Of course, our technology enables us to work flexibly and I feel that I am still being managed even though we do not meet facetoface every week.

Karen Fletcher: One thing I think can help is encouraging people to make informal applications. Quite often, organisations will direct people to the flexible working policy and tell them to go down the official route, which can put people off, and makes the process very formal. If there’s a willingness for managers to talk about the various options with employees and to deal with these things informally, then quite often companies can resolve any issues without the need to resort to legal advice.

Craig Lunnon: I think that talks of the differences between performance culture and an entitlement culture and people saying well I’m entitled to this and that’s a very different discussion and quite often an unhelpful discussion compared to a performance management discussion, which is actually, “I think I’d be more productive if I could do it this way”.

The luddite would see equality in flexible working as a legal minefield. Malcolm Hill: It’s how your organisation actually truly feels about mobile, flexible or home working and the culture which you’ve bred within your organisation. If an organisation pays lip service to that shift in working, then you will be in a conflict position every time somebody puts a request for flexible working in.

Peter Banks: It’s a big test on managers… I guess it could separate the good managers from the bad.

Katherine Holden: Effective flexible working needs a specific breed of line manager that absolutely knows each member of their team is accountable, who can clearly articulate this and consistently review individual performance. I hear ineffective line managers saying that they don’t know what their team is doing and team members saying they are unclear of what their line manager expects of them.

Keith Smith: If you address it independently and don’t think about its impact upon your leadership model, you’re stocking up some potential longterm problems. You need a style of leadership that is more expansive, is more transformational, it’s a very project-driven culture, a bit transactional, so the real challenge was to encourage leaders to let go, to think more about output.

And you have a clash of cultures, older workforce grown up with nine-to-five and millennials that want total flexibility.

Keith Smith: There’s a clash potentially, so I think education does become an important part of it.

Nigel Dutton: There will be incidents and catalysts that cause change and stimulate discussion, and people will start to think differently through that process. For o2’s move, going from traditionally based offices to a more flexible working office, telling the staff up front, this is what it’s going to look like and having that discussion up front, about huggers and hoppers, and deciding which they are going to be and what impact that was going to have on your job. So that was one catalyst for hange. We closed the offices for a day, and out of 2500 people, I think we only had 100 people, that so that was another significant catalyst that caused people to think about the way they can work and the bay the business can operate. And after this sort of activity has resulted in 80 percent of people working in a flexible schedule often from home or indeed anywhere they can get online.

Liese Lord: The catalyst for us is moving our European head office from an old fashioned traditional ninetofive manufacturing place, to a modern leased property where space occupation is absolutely critical to us. So we are adopting the view that location agility is key and will apply to every role, unless there are significant reasons for where it can’t apply to the role. But making flexible working as accessible to everybody at any stage of their life is key, so it’s not just when they come back from maternity. We’re widening the working hours window as well and encouraging those teams to work together to find a pattern.

Katherine Holden: With our sales people, their managers are very clear in terms of setting targets and there’s absolute trust that they will manage their working day to hit those targets, however they do that is up to them, so you need real clarity of roles, responsibility and objectives and really capable line managers.

Harj Kilshaw: Where there is a risk of inequality is where managers only feel confident extending flexibility to high achievers, so people that require closer control and instruction are kept close, and you have the possibility of two distinct groups.

Malcolm Hill: We are all, to varying degrees working differently from the traditional parameters, and it does shine a light on the way we work and it will reveal managers who are quick on the uptake, able to manage in an agile and flexible way.

Liese Lord: People who are sceptical about the flexible working culture need additional support and they need to build the trust from their manager in order for them to be able to enjoy those benefits.

Jill Maples: It’s a journey changing cultures and conventions, you have to have a clear strategy that leaders and managers can really work with to get people through the transition as quickly as possible, that’s so critical.

Keith Smith: Part of the business case that I think is quite hard to define is the productivity gain issue. If it is about saving office space or operational savings, that’s tangible. Increase in productivity is much harder to pin down because there’s many more variables. You have to ask people if they feel, as a result of working flexible, that they are more productive and that becomes a benchmark for tracking progress.

But not everybody wants to work at home. Some people want, even need colleagues around them.

Keith Smith: I think there are downsides, if you use flexible working as a benchmark you can potentially isolate people and it can undermine the team dynamic, and it can make people disappear off the radar.

Craig Lunnon: Another possible flashpoint is one team able to work flexibly with a manager that is successfully managing flexibly, and another insight team that wants to work flexibly, but has a manager that wants closer control.

Peter Banks: I think it’s possible that you could forget what is the purpose of people working for an organisation? It’s for the benefit, progress and profit of the business. You need managers that are able to work in the best way for the good of the business, not people that are unable to see the obvious benefits of flexibility.

Jill Maple: It goes back again to what your company strategy is. If you look at your sustainability piece, reducing your carbon footprint, that is a tangible reason for people to adopt flexibility. It’s about championing and promoting these sorts of initiatives and benefits.

Craig Lunnon: It’s balancing the needs of the organisation, balancing the needs of the individual at all levels and I’m kind of interested in the legal angle, if across the organisation, you have different departments operating at different levels of flexibility.

Karen Fletcher: From a strict flexible working perspective, the tribunals will look at the commercial rationale behind the decision, but from a discrimination perspective, they certainly do look at the reason for the difference in treatment. If it is simply about the manager’s approach, and the approach is applied to everyone equally, there is less likely to be a direct discrimination risk, but it goes back to business strategy and whether that manager is actually fitting in with the business strategy. It may be that managers need training if their views sit outside the business’ strategy.

There is that basic human nature to want to be seen as engaged, and punctuality and time spent in the office was always seen as a gauge of that.

Nigel Dutton: It is often the managers that are relatively new to a business that are reluctant to adopt flexible working, they don’t fully understand the culture or have developed their own networks or confidences in a more traditional set up. A big part of that is confidence, they feel the business doesn’t know them well, and so want to over-compensate with presenteeism, which looks like they’re working against the working culture.

Craig Lunnon: But I think that’s a level of organisational understanding that needs to be fed into these things, because you need to take account of that policy.

Keith Smith: We’ve all been part of a team and we understand the values in that. So when the dynamics of work change, it can take some getting used to, so you need to guide and support people.

Malcolm Hill: Also if there’s a blame culture people get paranoid being away from the workplace. But that’s not a problem for flexible working, that’s a cultural problem.

Karen Fletcher: Another challenge is the importance of knowledge sharing, which could be less fluid in remote working situation.

Jill Maples: Most of our conversations are probably not face to face, I’d say a large percentage of conversation between teams are on conference call and virtual meetings, people do adapt very quickly.

Nigel Dutton: I think we probably communicate too much, we’re all familiar with the “meeting about a meeting” culture. Really, with all the communication that goes on anyway, how often do we have to meet face-to-face?

Harj Kilshaw: There’s the informal knowledge sharing and you probably do lose that element of spontanaety.

Craig Lunnon: I agree, there are lots of advantages of regular contact with colleagues in the workplace that will be reduced by flexible working, you know the anecdote of the conversation at the water cooler that could yield a business lead.

Is there any evidence to show flexible working actually promotes engagement and retention?

Malcolm Hill: One of the biggest issues facing public sector at the moment is retention of staff for numerous reasons. The public sector sees the private sector as being far more attractive for pay and benefits so how do you actually keep hold of staff? Flexible working is being seen as one way of giving something back to employees, which in turn, helps retain them.

Katherine Holden: Last year our overall employee engagement was 84 percent favourable, so we’re obviously doing something right in terms of the way we operate and the culture we create. Our annual voluntary turnover last year was 6.4 percent. People are saying it’s convenient for them, it meets their needs and they can flex their hours and there is a real feeling of loyalty to the business.

Keith Smith: Logica implemented flexible working regime, we asked people soon after it had been in place what they felt about work/life balance and productivity and we asked them a year later and productivity measure was particularly interesting. Initially about a third of people thought that it improved their productivity but within a year it was two-thirds. And it also helps with absence rates, particularly short-term absence and people actually look forward to coming in to work.

Katherine Holden: We have employees returning from maternity leave on a part-time contract and their managers will say they’re actually more productive in the hours they’re doing now than when they were here full time. Managers put this down to the fact that there is a much more targeted focus on what needs to be done.

Harj Kilshaw: I find I spend more time with people where I add more value as opposed to just maybe running into people. It helps you cement some of the key relationships that you need to because you’re forced to pro-actively think about your location and it makes you really concentrate on your deliverables.

Liese Lord: We’ve been finding some challenges with what we call agile guilt or flexible working guilt, trying to help people realise they can ignore the little red light on the Blackberry or that it has an off button.

Can we turn our attention to employment law; what employment legislation must be considered when setting guidelines, policies and procedures for a flexible working policy?

Karen Fletcher: The flexible working regulations set down the procedure to follow. But they don’t have a lot of teeth from a tribunal perspective. So, whilst it is important to be aware of the procedure and, where you do get a formal flexible working request, to make sure you follow the timetable, it’s actually the discrimination aspects that you need to be more wary of. The difficulty here is it’s the policies and practices that companies put in place where you wouldn’t necessarily see there being an obvious indirectly discriminatory angle to them. Companies need to make sure that the policy is not going to affect someone with a particular protective characteristic in a way that makes it difficult for that person. If there is a discriminatory impact, it is about trying to tweak the policy to avoid that impact or, if it is disability, considering any reasonable adjustments which ought to be applied to the policy to avoid any discriminatory impact. But actually I still think it’s important to go out there, have innovative ideas and then think around the legalities.

Nigel Dutton: Are there any statistics on what cases have been brought against discrimination?

Karen Fletcher: The CIPD submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for information on the number of employment tribunal claims relating to the right to request flexible working. The CIPD obtained figures which indicated that, of all the 218,100 tribunal claims submitted in 2010/2011, around 270 claims contained allegations that employers had failed to consider a request for flexible working seriously. 229 of these claims were successfully conciliated by ACAS or settled. Out of the remaining 48 cases which went to Tribunal, only ten were decided in favour of the claimant. In terms of the statistics reported each year by HM Courts & Tribunal Service, the number of claims for failure to consider a request for flexible working are included in “other claims”, which also supports the fact that not many claims are made. However, it is unclear from the statistics how many sex discrimination claims arose because of a refusal to agree to a flexible working request as not all claimants will raise a claim under the flexible working procedure as well. In the same period, there were 18,300 claims of sex discrimination. Constructive dismissal is also a risk. For example, a maternity returner who says they can’t work full time and their employer has refused their request to work part time. So they say they’re forced into a position where they need to resign and claim constructive dismissal. Another area that probably hasn’t been considered all that much is age discrimination and the needs of older workers. In the current economic climate, many older workers can’t afford to retire so they want to look at flexible working and possibly part time working. This may lead to more flexible working requests from older workers.

What are the contractual considerations?

Katherine Holden: An employee, who is reducing their hours from the standard 35 to say 28, will have a new contract drawn up. If an employee wants to flex by changing their start and end time but not their hours, no change to contract is made, it’s an agreement between the employee and line manager.

Keith Smith: And the same happens with home working, you can have a more flexible model overall but you don’t necessarily need to set up somebody’s contractual place at home, as they may work from a number of bases. I mean it depends on the balance of home working but generally if it’s one or two days a week you don’t have that requirement to set up a home base necessarily.

Karen Fletcher: Having said that, if someone’s gone through a formal flexible working request then any changes are contractual changes and need to be recorded in writing. If the request has been dealt with on an informal basis, then the parties may continue with the same contractual position. However, I recommend putting any agreement, including informal agreements, in writing so that all parties are clear as to what’s been agreed and the period for which it’s been agreed. There are also health & safety issues and some companies will go to the employee’s home and carry out a full risk assessment. I think it depends on the situation as to whether or not the company would want to carry this cost. If the company is fully committed to encouraging home working, especially if someone is working from home more than one or two days every week, then it makes sense to get someone to do a risk assessment of their work space and make sure that it’s recorded on file.

Keith Smith: Self-assessment is the only way, if you’ve got 6000 employees, individual assessments is unmanageable.

Karen Fletcher: You don’t need to carry out a risk assessment to that extent. It’s more about looking at the office in which they are working, so if they are working at a desk, making sure that their chair is suitable and that the VDU’s at the right height, that sort of thing, because that’s the kind of thing that could cause a workplace injury which you could be liable for as an employer. An employer is unlikely to be liable for someone tripping over the top of their stair because they’ve got a bit of loose carpet. Companies need to be aware of their risks in terms of health and safety and make sure they are looking after the health & safety of their employees. That risk is there whether somebody’s in the office or whether they’re working from home, but yes, if contractually somebody is working from home for set days a week, then there is a risk of a personal injury claim arising from home working and it’s about managing that risk.

There will inevitably come a point where legislation can’t keep pace and there will be issues that will challenge laws.

Karen Fletcher: The difficulty is where somebody’s contractually entitled to work from home a couple of days a week. Then, it would still be sensible to do a risk assessment and I think it’s difficult to try and avoid liability by saying that employees work from home at their own risk.

Keith Smith: If you’re moving towards a flexible working regime overall, so people don’t have fixed desks, they can work from home, the new environment allows them to adjust the work life balance. How does this impact on individual flex working requests?

Karen Fletcher: Again, I think that comes down to business strategy in terms of deciding the strategy in the first place. Provided there are objective reasons why someone’s request is being turned down and that could be that the company is taking the view that they’re not going to allow home working and they’ve got good reasons for that, then it can stand up.

Keith Smith: It’s a judgment call, and is more informally resolved than formally resolved. I think what we experienced in Logica was that actually, moving to a more flexible working regime encouraged people to be more open to individual flexible working requests because work was being seen in a different way. You know, the way you package work up is not nine to five, five days a week, work patterns could be looked at differently.

Karen Fletcher: It’s always a good idea to go back to the contract of employment and check that it fits with the new working arrangements that you’ve agreed. But, generally speaking, there isn’t anything in a standard contract that you need to be particularly aware of when you’re changing the contract, following a request for flexible working. It’s just making sure that you put in writing what’s been agreed and you’re very clear as to the terms of those changes.

We seem to be agreeing that the organisation needs to be in good shape in the first place.

Craig Lunnon: People need role clarity, so make sure that the individual’s contract, role description, expectations, objectives are clear and understood and then spend time with the individual looking at how a flexible working request would impact that and how the individual is going to make sure that they continue to deliver to expectations of the role.

And as o2 did, it’s best to do the transition really quick, like pulling off a sticking plaster.

Nigel Dutton: I don’t know any other way. A new technology company like ourselves, less than ten years old, so there isn’t the heritage of the old traditional set up. That is definitely an advantage.

Malcolm Hill: Looking at local government, by and large their challenges are slightly different, because if people aren’t seen to be in the office then the perception is they’re not doing their job. There’s a large degree of political implications in what they’re doing as well, so they feel answerable to the Public.

Craig Lunnon: We’ve got several public sector clients who have moved from owner occupied status to rented buildings, a significantly lower overall cost and buildings that were half the size of the buildings they occupied before, realised that capital asset and reinvested it and they’ve got away with it although they have had some grief despite careful.

Katherine Holden: Over the last few years or so we have been consolidating our offices in Burton upon Trent and moved more of our employees to the High Street HQ Offices, which has meant that we have had to be clear with mobile workers that they will not have a dedicated desk anymore but will have access to hot desks on the HQ site when needed – this is becoming more and more accepted as the way in which we operate.

Let’s look at the technical enablers. How do you make the workplace future ready for flexible working as well as educate and promote initiatives such as hot-desking and remote working?

Malcolm Hill: Realistically the amount of technology platforms and apps that are available, are immense nowadays. A major issue in implementing it is that IT will design how they want it to look, how the home solution needs to work, the technology and systems that they need to have behind it. Defining what your individuals actually want is the first key part to any mobile or flexible working strategy.

Craig Lunnon: Security is the biggest challenge and some devices are not as secure as other devices.

Keith Smith: Cloud technology is designed to support flexi, in terms of security, as nothing is held on the machine, ideal for sensitive data working. At the end of the day, what you’re actually wanting to run a dumb terminal, so everything is at a repository.

Malcolm Hill: And here IT departments need to have the ability to remotely wipe devices and there are several device management tools out there. This means you can control what people can view and in the case of a theft, all secure information can be remotely wiped. You can make a device as secure as you like but what you can’t account for is a device being left on in a shared flat or someone just viewing it. Where this can fall down is where an IT department has not locked the device down, for example if a device has been inactive for a certain length of time – which is predetermined by IT policies-it will close itself down automatically.

Harj Kilshaw: We’re going through a transition generally, technology-wise and I think the wider issues of flexible working with regards to sensitive data will be an increasing issue and concern for organisations.

Craig Lunnon: I agree, if customer data goes missing, if I share confidential information between one client and another, I will definitely lose my job and we will definitely lose at least one of those clients.

And legally it’s a precedent we must have dealt with for many years since computers got mobile.

Karen Fletcher: Legally you have to be very secure with clients’ data. This is increasingly put into the terms of our agreements with clients as well. For example, we have a clear desk policy, not just because we share an open office but also because it’s one of the stipulations in some of our agreements with clients to make sure that all of the information is kept confidential.

Malcolm Hill: From a Government perspective they have specific levels of security that you have to adhere to which are over and above normal levels of security that you would expect for a standard business.

Karen Fletcher: I think VPN is brilliant and much used in the legal sector. As long as you have a Wi-Fi connection, you can work anywhere and have access to exactly the same technology, which is set out in exactly the same way, as when you are in the office.

Malcolm Hill: The problem with VPN, you go away for two weeks holiday, you come back, log in and your machine is now two weeks out of date on the antivirus. In effect, you’re now actually going back onto a network where your machine is not showing the correct policies and is not clean.

Craig Lunnon: That’s the technology we use, but as soon as we log on, the antivirus is driven down onto the machine, so we’re told to reboot as soon as it recognises we’re not up to date. There’s a small window of exposure.

Harj Kilshaw: At DWF we’re using many of the same applications that you’ve just described. VPN, Apps that can be loaded onto people’s own devices, iPads and so on.

Would you say that the economic downturn shaped this whole movement of working?

Karen Fletcher: I think that this recession has helped change views on flexible working. Many companies have looked at alternatives to redundancies such as introducing four day working and companies have seen that flexible and part time working can work for the organisation as a whole.

Keith Smith: I do wonder though whether potentially it is gathering momentum because of recession, the drive for efficiencies.

What about the long-term psychology we are, as a species, social animals.

Craig Lunnon: I agree, most people probably will want to come to a place of work in order to do a job, they just want to be a little bit more flexible about how and when they do that. I worked for a US based company and that was my experience of working in the US was that the workplace was designed like that because they only had two weeks a year leave and they worked nominally long hours. But my observation was that they kind of spread a normal working day into longer hours because they socialised at work and they had these break and coffee areas.

Leise Lord: But that places additional demands on the environment that you build and we’re identifying that but you’ve got to make it an attractive environment.

Malcolm Hill: Once you’re actually doing flexible or home working, is going into the office actually to work and be sat at a desk, or is it a day for meeting people you need to interact with to discuss work? For most, it is basically a social day, so you don’t need a desk, you are putting a specific day in the diary to catch up and socialise.

Read more Roundtable Reports – click here.

If you would like to sponsor a debate, please click here for more details.