What is flexible working?

The term ‘flexible working’ means lots of different things depending on who you are speaking to. To some it is the ability to work part-time, to others the ability to work from home and to others the ability to work shifts or on a zero hours basis.

The right to request flexible working has been around since 2003 and was initially for those with child care responsibilities. It was then extended to those with elder care responsibilities and since 2014, anyone who has at least 26 weeks service AND has not made a request in the last 12 months, has a statutory right to request flexible working. However, the weight is still with the employers as there is no obligation on them to grant flexible working. Next week we look at how to handle a request, cover the process of managing a request and the reasons employers can reject a request. In this week’s blog we are considering flexible working and whether it provides your business with a competitive edge.

As a small business owner who understands how flexible working can be used, I, like many entrepreneurs have used it in various different ways over the years. At the current time, we have 2 part time employees Brenda and Fiona and one zero hours employee, my PA Simone.

Back in 2007, I initially thought the business would just be me. I shortly realised that I either needed to shut the business down or grow it – it just couldn’t stay as it was. The thought of hiring staff was absolutely terrifying. Would I have enough for them to do? Could I generate income for more than just me? Over the next few years, I added a number of employees, starting with people on zero hours contracts. They had proper contracts and full employee rights, but they were only paid for the hours they worked. Until 2014, all my staff were home based – we had no office, we met once every other week around my dining room table.

As the business grew, the ability to offer flexibility decreased as clients wanted and needed more consistent support. We took our first offices (we are now in our fourth home, having outgrown each previous office) and started to hire full time employees. Today’s mix is still a combination of home based and office based full and part time employees, but the culture of the business now reflects some of the flexibility we have lost as we have grown.

If someone needs to come in late, work through their lunch or leave early, they can. If someone needs to work from home or from another remote location, our technology now allows this. If the snow is so heavy making it unsafe to travel to work, the whole team can be home based.

However, there are lots of advantages to being together in the office and communication, training and support for clients are just a few, but the increased use of modern technology also means that on the occasions when staff need it, we can be more flexible.

In a recent article in People Management (the CIPD’s journal), they reported some interesting facts from recent surveys:

  • 75% of UK employees favour flexible working
  • 59% of employers believe that flexible working negatively impacts on team bonding
  • 27% of full time employees have flexible working arrangements
  • The caring, leisure and service industries have the highest proportions of employees in flexible working arrangements
  • The number of part time employees expecting to be promoted in the next three years is less than half the number of full time employees.

Flexible working is still seen quite negatively by many, but those who are using it to provide a better quality of service or an enhanced service to their clients, perhaps by offering shifts, see real benefits for their business.

So how do you decide what to allow, what to encourage and what to reject? It will depend on your business, your clients and your sector. There is no point in offering a service until midnight seven days a week, if your clients only want to speak to you Monday – Friday 9 – 5.

Take a proper look at your business and think about how it could become a better place to be, not only for you and your employees, but for your clients as well. Don’t continue in the same way you have just because that is what you have always done.

Would longer hours benefit your business? Could offering shifts or 10 days in 9 enable you to offer clients an extended hours service? Would it mean reduced journey times for staff as they travel outside of the rush hour? Would it mean an employee could get a day off every two weeks? Could it mean an employee gets to do the school pick up on some or every day?

Flexible working is going to become increasingly important and being able to offer meaningful flexible working with proper salaries and career progression may make the difference between a potential employee working for you or for your competitor. The needs of the business must still prevail, but how can you turn flexible working into your competitive advantage?

I’m Donna Obstfeld, founder, owner and Managing Director of DOHR.

With over 25 years of HR and Managment experience, I work with business owners to look at their HR strategy and how it sits alongside their business strategy.

As an employer myself, I deal with all the same issues as many of our clients and that puts me in a fairly unique position as an advisor.

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