How HR can play a ‘starring role’ in making flexible working actually work

Experts reflect on what people professionals can do to make flexibility beneficial – and fair – for employees and businesses

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Since the beginning of the pandemic, it would be easy to conclude that flexible working arrangements have been on an inexorable rise.

ONS Labour Force Survey data shows that home working arrangements doubled in the first six months of the Covid crisis, while there has also been much media attention on the potentially stress-busting, productivity-driving benefits of four-day week experiments.

Furthermore, from next year millions of workers are expected to be given the right to request flexible working arrangements from day one of their employment.

Yet scratch beneath the surface and flexible working trends are not as straightforward as they might seem. Despite ONS figures from earlier this year showing 40 per cent of working adults now do some form of home work, a 2022 CIPD reward survey shows that 75 per cent of organisations were attempting to lure staff back into the office. 

In addition, initial data from the peak of the pandemic shows that other forms of flexible working – flexi-time, job share, compressed hours, part-time hours, annualised hours and zero-hours contracts – have all decreased in use since the beginning of the pandemic.

Flexible working since Covid

A new study by Sarah Jackson and Flexibility Works, How we work now: The enduring impact of Covid lockdown on flexible working, which interviewed 11 organisations of different sizes and from different sectors with a combined total of 56,000 employees, found that business leaders and senior HR staff are still grappling with how to make flexible working deliver for organisations and staff.

The study found the key concerns to be:

  • rebalancing individual remote or flexible work as something that benefits the collective – and create a positive culture around this;
  • balancing employee autonomy with business needs;
  • creating fairness in flexibility with frontline staff;
  • delivering good wellbeing outcomes and boundaries around flexible work;
  • creating a strong company culture and communication with staff;
  • upskilling managers to be effective leaders of flexible work; and
  • understanding how to performance manage remote work.

It poses big questions on how leaders can ensure flexibility works for all.

Common understanding around an emotional issue

For Sarah Jackson, senior associate at Flexibility Works, it is not surprising that leaders are still grappling with this “very emotional” subject, as the upheaval of the last few years has created a situation where staff have new expectations of work and leaders have to create fairness within new paradigms.

To drive successful outcomes, Jackson says it is crucial to train managers and leaders in how to manage flexibility, as well as giving them a better understanding of everything it can be – and offering some experience of flexible work. “For HR, it's critical to be looking at how you can give confidence to the managers in your organisation, whether they're the leaders on the board or line managers because they are all navigating something that is new,” she says.

Jackson also believes that HR can reimagine work and better focus on what the organisation truly needs – if the function is proactive. “It gives HR an opportunity to say to managers: ‘Let's get ahead of this thing and think about what jobs are capable of having flexibility, where work is done,’” she says.

“Then we can help managers define what core operational requirements are needed, such as contact and availability, and this gets people thinking collectively again.”

Leaders at the centre of flexibility

Gary Cookson, director of Epic HR, believes that leaders have a central role in building on the personalisation of work that has occurred over the last few years: “Leaders… working out loud about how to do this [work flexibly] is helpful for others who are unsure whether to mention their own circumstances and it can help to normalise discussions around flexibility and personalising work.”

This is a view shared by Claire McCartney, senior policy adviser at the CIPD, who says HR can encourage leaders to take the lead in ensuring that what flexibility looks like at the firm is understood by all.

The function can also help to develop flexible structures, be creative in how they imagine it and build an understanding of the benefits flexibility can bring. “[HR should] encourage leaders to regularly talk about their own flexible working patterns and the difference flexible working can make to individuals and organisational performance as well as work to dispel myths,” McCartney says.

Fairness is critical

With the Flexibility Works survey finding that business leaders are also concerned with making flexible work fair, especially for frontline staff, McCartney tells People Management that this should get HR thinking about different forms of flexible working and “explore how they can be effective in roles that have traditionally been seen as non-flexible”.

She adds: “Businesses can make use of pilots and trials and build in mechanisms to monitor and evaluate progress to gain buy-in and ensure there is enough support for line managers by providing training on how to support flexible workers.”

McCartney says HR has to work to ensure that how an employee works (remotely, hybrid, in person or via a flexible use of time) does not impact access to opportunity. “HR has to ensure flexible workers have access to the same training and development afforded to those that work less flexibly,” she says. “Are they being promoted in the same way? If not, then take action to ensure greater consistency and fairness.” 

Serge da Motta Veiga, director at Neoma Business School, adds that communication is critical in explaining why all employees might not be able to access flexibility in the same way: “HR and the top management team need to accommodate to the greatest extent possible different needs in terms of flexibility and flexible arrangements and it is important to communicate to employees what can be done and what cannot be done in terms of flexible arrangements.”

Flexibility as a benefit

Jackson says HR can play a starring role in flexibility by being the “bridge” between employees, the business and the executive and getting all voices heard in a “culturally mature” organisation. “We have to remind people that the way they want to work may not be the best way a colleague works,” she explains.

“But ultimately [making flexibility work] is HR bread and butter: we come back to the same HR processes and engagements that we always have, it’s just they look different at the moment.”