From 30th June 2014 the Right to Request Flexible Working is being extended to all employees with 26 weeks service. I suspect the response from many HR people to this announcement has been “So what’s new? We already have flexible working in our organisation and it will be business as usual.” They may be right – but business as usual could be a mistake. Let me explain why.

In many organisations flexible working policies and practices have developed piecemeal in response to particular HR issues – perhaps offering part-time work to maternity returners – and to specific legislation – such as the original Right to Request which now covers anyone with caring responsibilities. While some employers may offer training in how to manage flexible workers, in many organisations little thought has been given to how flexible working can be fully extended to all employees, integrated into broader HR practices and embedded into corporate consciousness as a wide ranging business benefit.

Speculation is rife as to what the likely impact of the extension will be. So much is already going on under the radar in many organisations that it’s difficult to predict whether employers will suddenly face a deluge of new requests, or whether it truly will be “business as usual”. Either way, I’d like to suggest five reasons why now is a good time for organisations to harness existing policies and practices into a strategic approach to flexibility. 

1.    It’s likely to be perceived as fairer all round. Earlier this week Opportunity Now’s 28-40 project report caused a media stir as a key finding revealed resentment among childless women expected to work longer hours to accommodate the needs of colleagues who are mothers. A strategic approach to flexible working starts with a focus on outputs rather than number of hours worked or where that work is done. Individuals are then free to organise working arrangements -in collaboration with colleagues and bosses – that accommodate the non-work needs of everyone.

2.    Managers are able to make evidence based decisions about how and where the work should be carried out for optimum results; rather than acting on emotional assumptions that are often driven by unconscious bias, erroneous beliefs or even fear of losing control. Similarly, a strategic approach enables the organisation to capture and evaluate current experience and identify training needs – which in turn can lead to more productive – and more efficient – flexible working practices.

3.    Flexibility can be integrated to support other HR initiatives such as the retention and career progression of talented women. While the issues surrounding the female “glass ceiling” are complex, it’s well documented that women experience considerable work-life conflict as they progress to more senior levels. Some believe their only option is to work part-time (often paying the penalties of both working below their skills level and compromising their career) while others opt to leave an organisation altogether. Enabling more flexible working at senior levels may be the missing piece of the puzzle for those employers already implementing coaching and training initiatives designed to develop their female talent pipeline.

4.    Where the approach to flexible working starts with the end in mind (i.e. a focus on outputs or results) it enables the redesign of jobs so that employees can be more productive while the organisation becomes more “Agile”

5.    Finally, a strategic approach recognises that the issue of flexible working extends beyond the HR department and provides an opportunity for collaboration with other business functions such as IT Support, Facilities Management and Health & Safety advisors. It’s not just about people working productively, it can also be a key contributor to an organisation’s “green agenda” or to a business strategy aimed at reducing overhead (in the form of premises) costs.