Long reads

Does flexible working work for everyone?

21 Feb 2019 By Jo Faragher

Flexible working has stalled as businesses decide it’s too hard to tackle. But as these firms found, there’s no excuse to stick rigidly to the nine-to-five

Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, is frustrated. “In conversations about flexible working, we’re preoccupied with people who work in office environments in the City, where their boss lets them work from home once a week,” he says. “What works for EY doesn’t work for our colleagues – we need our nurses out in the community, in people’s homes and on wards. We’re a  high-touch business and the reality of the economy is that a lot of jobs require you to be present.” 

With a workforce that’s 76 per cent female and 40,000 vacancies for trained nurses which need to be filled, the health service is working hard, both on a centralised and local basis, to make flexible working part of its offer. In many places, it uses technology to manage shifts cleverly and the emphasis is on “predictability” rather than flexibility. “In some trusts, if you can only work on Wednesday, we’ll find a job for you,” Mortimer says. “You might have to move departments but we’ll guarantee you those hours. If people know in advance what their commitments are, then if something does come up it’s easier to manage. People want flexibility from us as an employer in terms of them being able to manage their own lives.” 

If the NHS, as the sixth largest employer in the world, can make determined, albeit gradual, steps towards embedding flexibility into its operating model, anyone can. Yet evidence from the CIPD’s January 2019 Megatrends report on the topic suggests UK-wide take-up of flexible working had plateaued since 2010, despite the right to request it being extended to all employees with more than 26 weeks’ service in 2014. 

On one level, this isn’t necessarily the bad news it might seem. Emma Stewart, CEO and co-founder of flexible working consulting and campaigning group Timewise, argues informal arrangements have become commonplace as the concept of flexibility has become more accepted. “The need to get a formal flexible working request granted is diminishing because there are more open conversations going on,” she says. 

The organisation has set up an innovation unit in a bid to understand how job design across different sectors can support better work-life balance. “Managers’ resistance to flexible working is often based on a perception that it can’t be done. But they’ve not been given the support to do things differently, and we’re not trying hard enough to be innovative,” adds Stewart. 

But she also acknowledges that white-collar, professional services environments are far more flexible than others. It is notoriously difficult to enable flexible working among many retailers, service centres or manufacturing sites. If HR professionals can use their OD and workforce planning skills, in tandem with operational leaders, they can start to break down these barriers – overcoming misconceptions about what flexible working looks like and how it can operate in complex, increasingly digitised organisations. And they can also move the concept of flexibility away from simply working part-time, or working from home occasionally, to encompass a fuller range of options.

One such example can be found in the Midlands town of Rugby, where construction company Morgan Sindall has been thinking more openly about flexibility and has begun to reap the benefits, both in head office and on its numerous sites around the country.

HR director Dawn Moore believes too many organisations rely on policy when it comes to supporting more flexible working arrangements. “You can have all the policies and processes in the world, but if you don’t offer a culture where it’s welcome, and where it’s seen to add value, then those policies won’t work,” she says. “First you need to change thinking and behaviours, and then the policies and processes back that up.” 

As part of a broader push towards diversity in its male-dominated workforce, the company began to rethink its flexible working offer four years ago. “One reason construction does not appeal to the female talent pool is the perceived fixed and long hours,” she adds. “One of the things we did was to look at every single role. 

“Is there an opportunity to allow flexibility in this job? Flexibility is so much more than working from home. It could be in a location nearer home, making better use of technology so you can work from another site.” From a practical perspective, this is not rocket science: construction teams look at workloads each week to see who is available to cover which site and when and line managers are encouraged to have regular discussions about what arrangements work. 

The approach is delivering, with the number of women in the business doubling in the past two years to 21 per cent, compared to an industry average of 14 per cent. And it won the business a 2018 CIPD People Management Award for best diversity and inclusion initiative.

This isn’t just about diversity but operational effectiveness too. With unemployment at record lows and further challenges to the talent market expected whatever form Brexit takes, the UK needs to keep people in productive work for as long as possible. The CIPD is among employers encouraging the use of the strapline ‘Happy to talk flexible working’ in job advertisements, allied to a more inclusive approach to the topic. 

Arguably, this is about being more flexible around the topic of flexible work itself, adds Lucy Adams, author of The HR Change Toolkit and founder of consultancy Disruptive HR. “Flexible working is a classic example where companies apply a typical HR approach to something and then are upset when it doesn’t work,” she says. “We’re treating employees like children – they have to fill out an application, then we decide whether they’re trustworthy.” When the starting point is flexibility until proven otherwise, she adds, line managers think about it in a different way. 

At Philip Morris International, the challenge is how to apply flexibility across 51 affiliates and 80,000 employees. The business is undergoing a major change programme that will move it away from being a tobacco company to focusing on alternatives such as e-cigarettes – and improving diversity and inclusion is a priority as part of this shift. 

“We have a set of [flexible working] principles and different units can design policies that work for them,” says Melissa Whiting, head of inclusion and diversity. Flexible working often means different things to different cultures – in some parts of Asia, for example, employees live in smaller homes they share with extended families, so working from home is not as desirable. In front-line roles such as in operational centres and sales offices, the company offers flexible start and finish times or the chance to work a compressed week, as long as workers are available during core hours. 

“We try to build managers’ confidence. We encourage them to build in milestones and to reflect and challenge their own ways of working,” adds Whiting. “Your convenience is not what makes the whole team more productive. Change can be difficult for those used to working in a certain way.” 

The poster child for flexible work in unusual environments was Southwest Airlines, which began enabling customer service agents to work from home through the use of advanced call-handling technology as long ago as the 1990s. A slew of awards for good service prove it’s suffered no detriment in the intervening years.

The key is to find the approach that works for you. At online furniture company MADE, staff are able to access ‘Everyday Flex’ – a scheme that allows them to determine their own start and finish times. “By letting our employees choose a schedule that best suits their working style, we want to give them the potential to strike a better work-life balance and increase personal choice and convenience, while being as productive as they can,” says head of HR Kate Humber. 

“Whether you need to drop off or pick up your child from nursery, or attend an evening class, it’s up to our employees to work with their teams to come to an arrangement that works for everyone.” 

Adams says open approaches such as this show more lateral thinking, and demonstrate trust. “It’s about having a broader definition of flexibility than allowing people part-time hours or to work from home,” she adds. “Your employees might want to pursue other interests on the side; maybe help out a start-up, be a school governor. This is how we hang on to hard-to-keep talent.” 

As the labour market becomes more fluid and gig-style working gains traction – alongside a rise in the number of older carers who may need support – technology has a crucial role in supporting agile working arrangements. Supermarkets including Morrisons and Tesco have introduced software that allows staff to request shift patterns and enjoy greater control over the hours they work, or the ability to accept overtime. 

Meanwhile, e-rostering is empowering NHS trusts to manage rotas more effectively, or use an internal bank of nurses who can work flexibly but are not seeking a substantive contract. 

Of course, managers need to address concerns around fairness, allocation of work and the belief there’s a ‘hierarchy’ of entitlement to flexible working. In a recent article on the impact of its company-wide policy of flexible work for everyone, PwC people leader Anne Donovan stressed that “everyone deserves the same degree of flexibility” and that it was not about “generational need”. 

At MADE, the Everyday Flex Scheme has not caused any issues so far because the trust is there, says Humber: “Ultimately, we trust our managers to manage their teams locally to ensure the needs of the team and individuals can be met.”

But technology and transparency can only bring us so far, argues Claire McCartney, diversity and inclusion advisor at the CIPD. “Often the bit that’s missing is in the job design. So you might try to offer part-time work but the role is really full-time and the person ends up trying to do it in three days, so it’s very stressful,” she says. 

Stewart agrees: “The trouble is we don’t help our managers by building their capability to redesign jobs,” she adds. “They can be good at managing remote teams but when the question comes up of ‘can I do four days?’,  they ask where the extra day is going to come from.” 

The company worked with retailer Pets at Home in 2017 to identify constraints and look at ways employees could choose flexible job patterns but still enjoy career progression. This included introducing job share and part-time options for store managers – arrangements that are often off-limits in front-line retail roles. 

Dr Heejung Chung, reader in sociology and social policy at the University of Kent, says more innovative approaches could have positive impacts on retention in the long term. “We know that going part-time is not great for career progression – giving employees control over how or where they work reduces the likelihood they will have to work part time to meet family demands,” she says. 

Whiting, meanwhile, urges employees to speak up for what they need, rather than wait for the perfect policy. “This can take courage, and in the early days some managers’ first reaction was to say no. Others started with a trial. But it has to come from both sides,” she says. Even by starting small, challenging the nine-to-five – or whatever that looks like in your organisation – could be the secret to holding on to happier, more loyal employees. 

Is the law on flexible work fit for purpose?

In 2014, the right to request flexible working was extended to all employees with 26 weeks’ qualifying service – pushing the right beyond those who were parents or had caring responsibilities. However, as the CIPD’s recent Megatrends research on the topic revealed, formal take-up has been broadly flat since around 2010. 

Dr Heejung Chung, reader in sociology and social policy at the University of Kent, points out that although the legislative framework for flexible working is in place, employees still often feel like “it’s not an option that’s accessible to them”. And the way the legislation is designed means “the onus lies on the employee to justify how it will work, which is a huge burden”. 

When it comes to more complicated requests, particularly in front-line roles where working from home is not an option, the law says managers can reject a request based on one or more specific grounds (including cost, ability to meet customer demands, inability to reorganise work, impact on quality or performance, lack of work when the employee wants to do it, or planned structural changes). 

“The overriding requirement is for employers to deal with all requests in good faith, but it’s comparatively easy to say no,” says Alasdair Hobbs, employment law solicitor at Excello Law. “This is often because employees fail to follow the requirements of the regulations, not making it clear how and why the arrangement might work for the employer.” 

He adds: “Employees need to make the request harder to say no to. They could suggest a trial period and start with an action plan, rather than coming at it with a sense of entitlement.” 

The CIPD-chaired Flexible Working Taskforce hopes to find ways to better support managers and their teams to meet in the middle. Diversity and inclusion advisor Claire McCartney says: “We need more guidance for employees on how they can balance their personal needs with those of the business, as well as a toolkit for employers so they can handle requests.” 

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