Is flexible working really for everyone?

Agility may not be the answer to every business problem, says Monica Lochrie

Flexible working is often presented as the cure to many businesses' ills. A quick Google of ‘flexible working advantages’ returns 84m results, compared with 23.5m for ‘flexible working disadvantages’. 

It’s true that flexible working can offer a range of benefits to businesses. Studies have proven it enhances recruitment and retention, increases staff motivation, cuts absence rates, increases diversity and can promote a positive company culture. It even has financial benefits, reducing overheads, cutting the need for overtime, and bringing training and recruitment costs down. 

Likewise, the benefits flexible working affords employees are many. It can reduce stress, fatigue and the chances of burnout. As the policy’s name suggests, it also offers staff more flexibility in their lives, helping them juggle family life and interests with their careers. 

Perhaps that’s why in the last year or so, we’ve found candidates are placing as much importance on a company’s non-financial benefits as they are on the financial perks. In some cases, staff are even willing to leave a job or change employer for flexible working opportunities. 

A failure to adapt to this new reality could see some businesses miss out on the best employees, particularly millennials who question the perceived ‘normalities’ of office life. 

But, is it really for every organisation, as some commentators have recently claimed? The answer is ‘probably not’, whether it’s by design or decision.   

In some circumstances, flexible working just might not be possible. That’s particularly true of multinational organisations, where local and one-off decisions can be difficult to make. In these instances, it is also largely dictated by the attitudes towards work-life balance in the country where the company is headquartered. 

In traditional industries, business leaders often place huge importance on ‘paying your dues’ and expect a healthy dose of overtime as standard. That said, accountancy would normally be considered a ‘traditional’ sector, but the Big Four firms have grasped flexible and agile working with both hands, initiating a range of schemes and policies to adapt to the new work-life ratio. 

For some sectors, it’s just not a good fit. In food and drink manufacturing, for example, shift patterns dictate that staff absolutely must work certain hours doing specific jobs to ensure production targets are hit. And for the positions that aren’t so regimented, it could be considered insensitive to take on what people in other roles within the same organisation might consider a luxury. 

There’s even some debate about whether staff who work in these areas would see any benefit from being offered flexible working. In my experience, zero-hours contracts have seen a big drop in popularity among employers and now tend to be aimed at students and casual workers, who are available at the drop of a hat. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, but flexible working arrangements would be of negligible use to these workers. 

For manufacturing plants, a rotational system often turns out to be in workers’ favour. They are also inclined to place more importance on the financial benefits of their positions, which tend to be reflected in overtime pay and shift allowances.

The tech sector is particularly open to flexible working arrangements – it’s an industry that’s well-known for valuing employees’ output over their input. There are a host of others that can have employees working from home or from a café with little effect on deadlines or productivity. 

Some organisations take the idea to the nth degree, which inevitably has its challenges. It can cause distortions in the team, reducing workers to a series of ‘lone rangers’ with greater risk of crossover and duplication of tasks. 

Equally, if there’s barely anyone in a workplace, it can kill a company’s culture and any ‘office buzz’, which can be an important asset for some employers. It can also make it difficult for junior members of an organisation to learn from their more seasoned counterparts if they aren’t physically present. 

Ultimately, whether flexible working is appropriate for a business comes down to the culture of an organisation and its needs. But, there’s no point in having a flexible working policy if no one feels like they can use it. It has to be more than a tick in a box. 

Monica Lochrie is senior consultant, HR at HRC Recruitment