Findings from the HR Think Tank Series, founded by Oasis HR.

As the new “Facebook Generation” begins to climb the corporate ladder, often with a different perspective about what they are looking for from a work / lifestyle balance, corporates can no longer afford to pigeon-hole their flexible employee demographic to new mums or semi retired professionals. Arguably a whole new lens is required if businesses want to differentiate themselves from the competition when it comes to engaging top talent.

So, how can the Resourcing Function more effectively meet the demands of the business by engaging sought after talent through innovative and flexible working schemes and what effect does this have on promoting a more diverse workforce? Moreover, how can a function gain buy-in and secure investment from the business to promote flexible working schemes such as job sharing, flexi time, remote working and part / reduced time roles?

What is Flexible Working?

Before attempting to tackle too many of these questions, it’s important to take a step back to address what flexible / agile working is. After much deliberation, focusing on what it isn’t seems to be most effective in answering the question. Flexible working encompasses anything outside of the traditional 9-5 hours five days a week – from job sharing, part time working and 0 hours contracts to 9 day fortnights, flexi-time, home working and expanding the contracting workforce to meet business demand.

But what evidence is there that a flexible working model works and is profitable for an employer? Most notably, research has shown that businesses can experience between a 3-13% cost reduction when employing a flexible worker. Moreover, when looking at shift work for targeted sales employees, experience shows that employees demonstrated higher productivity levels when working 5 hour shifts rather than 8. Employees working shorter hours were less ‘burnt out’, exhibited higher engagement levels and were happier at work if they had been able to influence their shift allocation.

Another burning question plaguing the implementation of a flexible working scheme concerns the type of job that is suited to an agile environment. Rather than assessing flexible working on a job-by-job basis, it’s suggested that you should position the four leavers of flexible working to each business unit to identify an agile solution (or not) that works for that environment. The four leavers are defined as: location, time, role and source of labour. This provides a solid starting point and helps reach a solution which is going to positively influence differing cases.

Barriers to Flexible Working

So what’s standing in our way and preventing us from operating a truly agile working model? One of the first and most important barriers is business buy-in. As discussed, there is evidence demonstrating the ROI of flexible working, however sometimes this isn’t enough to convince the non-believers. Often it’s best to pilot the model in one business unit (if possible in the most vocally opposed department) to demonstrate the success and get your challengers onside. Word will soon get out regarding the benefits and before you know it the rest of the organisation is sold.

Secondly, there seems to be a misconception associated with part time working and job-sharing, most commonly that these avenues are opted for only by working mums who are looking to re-join the workforce. Thirdly, a lack of awareness amongst workers who don’t realise that they have the option to work more flexibly to suit their needs and compliment those of the business. And finally, as with most schemes today, technology plays an integral part in the effectiveness of certain elements of agile working. Can people work from home, access programmes and dial-in remotely to conference calls? It’s the business’s responsibly to clearly communicate its stance with regard to flexible working, what’s available, where it’s available and how employees go about working in a more agile manor.

Adapting to the Needs of the Workforce

Most of us will be aware that the needs of the workforce, in particular the ‘F-Generation’ (Facebook Generation), are changing – from promotional opportunities and exciting career paths to more flexible hours. Whether it’s right to adapt to these needs or not is an entirely different question, but the fact is if you don’t offer them attractive opportunities your competitors will. When considering this ‘F-Generation’,  creating an environment that encourages them to come to work is key. This could be something as simple as offering ‘student hour contracts’ and opening up your offices from 19.00 – 23.30 week nights to provide valuable work experience and enable some of your administrative tasks to be completed. This opportunity poses an attractive alternative to student bar work, fits in with their studies, looks impressive on their CV and doesn’t compromise the desk space of full-time employees.

Embedding a Flexible Culture

Creating the policies around flexible working is the simple part. Actually embedding it in the mind-set of your workforce is incredibly challenging, especially for businesses where employee’s tenure is high, as creating behavioural change is very difficult. Moreover, businesses are often tasked with rolling out such schemes across different territories whereby contracted hours differ, holiday entitlement varies and the working environment is culturally different. This will naturally impact the success of a flexible working scheme, which is why it’s crucial to pose the four leavers to business units to see how it can be used within that specific environment.

Offering employees a choice and assigning process ownership to them can make a big difference in how the scheme is received. In order to allow them to make an informed decision, why not introduce something like compulsory home-working for a two week period. Once they have experienced it, whether or not they embrace it is down to individual choice based on their own productivity and preference.

Attracting Agile Workers

When you’ve implemented a flexible working programme internally, how can you take this message to market and ensure you are advertising in the right places to attract the right type of talent? Thankfully there are specialist outlets which should increase your chances of reaching the desired candidates such as AJA Part Time Jobs, Time Wise Jobs, and Working Mums. From experience job response is often higher for part-time roles; further stressing the need to cater to these individual’s needs. For businesses who need flexible workers with very niche skills, why not contact retired talent within your pension database or alumni programme to see whether they would be open to contracting on a part-time basis in their free time?

Increasing Skill-set through Job-sharing

Job-sharing is a relatively underused component of agile working, but arguably an effective one when used appropriately. Perhaps a single individual is 80% suited to a job specification, but two individuals within a job-share contribute 60% suitability each – surely having a 120% competence is ultimately going to result in better productivity? Typically this model seems to be more widely used amongst junior roles; however research shows high success rates amongst senior women. Evidently, it is going to be crucial to understand which roles feasibly work when structured as a job-share, how you justify the extra headcount (basing it upon full time equivalent numbers is most accurate) and the tools needed to convince line-managers that the additional appraisal they will have to deliver is worthwhile. Getting buy-in for this model is generally much easier when a senior executive is supporting the scheme, such as an HR Director who is potentially willing to fund a cross-over day for the job-sharing duo.

Forming the actual partnerships is the remaining piece of the puzzle. Like within a marriage, both parties need to compliment each other for the union to be successful and hold longevity. Involving one member of the job-share within the recruitment process can prove successful – similarly to a tenant looking for a new flat mate on Quite often organisations will promote both parties of a job share together, presuming the ‘couple’ are working harmoniously together.

Final Thoughts

When looking at creating an agile working model it is critical to start with a problem (perhaps it’s a lack of office space or poor retention) and then work backwards to address the issues with agile working solutions. However before this point is even reached, getting that initial buy-in or Executive sponsorship is essential. Often it seems that people don’t care about flexible working until it effects them personally (perhaps they’ve recently started a family and need to be ‘smarter’ about their work balance) – these individuals often become your advocates, and if they sit within the leadership team then even better.

Organisations who seem to have flexible working running successfully and embedded in the culture of the business often sit within the public sector. Are there lessons to be learnt from this sector in terms of communicating the organisation’s stance and then allowing employees to drive their own agile working patterns?