How HR can make flexible working truly successful

Amanda Cusdin explains why, in order for a hybrid model to work for both organisations and employees, HR needs to focus on trust and outcomes

When the pandemic started in 2020, few people could have predicted that our lives would still be upended two years on. While there is a strong appetite to return to life as normal, the latest Covid variant has once again shown us the unpredictable impact that the pandemic is having on how we live and work.   

The most recent ‘work from home’ advice from the government, at the back end of 2021, saw a varied response from employers, with some sticking closely to the guidance and others allowing employers to continue working in the office.  

Without direct legislative measures from the government, we’re likely to see that same varied approach to ways of working in the longer term. Although a recent government consultation on flexible working may help to improve employees’ rights by enabling them to ask for flexible working from day one, it will still give employers the right of refusal. So it will be organisations that ultimately decide what is right for them. 

Given the unpredictability of the pandemic, there is a clear case for moving to more flexible ways of working that allow businesses to adapt at speed when needed. This also makes good business sense; it can help attract a more diverse pool of talent while promoting wellbeing and a better work-life balance for employees that sustains high performance. The key for organisations is to ensure that flexible working creates the right outcomes for the business, customers and employees. It must be looked at holistically.   

Unsurprisingly, given the move to remote working during the pandemic, the conversation around flexible working has so far focused heavily on where people work. When and how they work are equally important, and companies should consider how different working patterns – be that part-time, compressed hours or job share – can also enable them to offer greater flexibility and stay competitive in the war for talent.

The ‘Great Resignation’ means there are more vacancies now than before – and the power balance has shifted towards job seekers. They are feeling emboldened to ask for what they want, and flexible working is high on their list. In recent research from Gartner, 55 per cent of employees said that whether or not they can work flexibly will impact if they will stay with their employer, while research from EY revealed that 54 per cent of employees would consider changing their jobs if flexible working wasn’t an option. 

For hybrid working to be effective, there must be a clear focus on outcomes and trust between leaders and their teams. Those that continue to monitor employees on a more traditional basis of where they are and how many hours they work, will not be successful in this new way of working. 

At Sage, we’ve created a flexible hybrid framework, within which teams decide the specific ways of working that will best support them to collectively deliver for our customers and the business. 

It’s built around four key principles, the first of which is customer-centric performance. Each team is empowered to build a hybrid team agreement, guided by the principles of our framework, and that agreement must set out a way of working in which colleagues are working sustainably and delivering great outcomes for our customers.

Our offices (Sage Hubs) help to enable that by creating flexible spaces in which colleagues can collaborate and innovate, or find a quiet space if they struggle to do that at home. They support a second principle of our hybrid approach – ‘human connection’.

We’re also offering colleagues the opportunity to work away from their home country for up to 10 weeks per year to support their wellbeing and provide more flexible options to balance work and travel. And we are starting to scale the flexibility of time and working patterns, by embedding this at the point of job design.

Flexible working is not just a concern for large organisations like Sage. Small and medium businesses around the UK are committed to reviewing their flexible working policies and diversifying their workforce. In our own research almost half (48 per cent) of the SMEs we spoke to said that employee health and wellbeing was now a top priority. This highlights a greater focus on supporting employees and ensuring their welfare is sustained – something that must remain front of mind as companies evolve their flexible working policies.

Two years after the start of the pandemic, we’ve reached a pivotal moment. Businesses must now decide what the future of work looks like for them. Ultimately, it’s the businesses – both large and small – that adopt the most progressive flexible work strategies who will find themselves in the best position to grow their business and thrive in the tumultuous environment this pandemic has brought us.

Amanda Cusdin is chief people officer at Sage