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Flexibility is key to success. By Lucie Benson


Those organisations that offer flexible working to their staff may find that it increases recruitment and retention rates, and creates a more loyal and productive workforce. Lucie Benson speaks to HR Zone members to find out whether all staff should have the right to request flexible working.

If you want to stay ahead of the game these days, and strive to be a successful and competitive organisation with a loyal and productive workforce, it may be wise to introduce flexible working arrangements for your staff.

We all have busy lives and responsibilities outside of work and, by offering employees a means of maintaining that crucial work/life balance, employers can not only find the best talent when recruiting, but they can retain quality staff too.

In a recent survey of 1,440 workers, by the Orange Future Enterprise coalition, it found that 50 per cent of UK employees felt that being able to work more flexibly will be an important factor in choosing their next job, while three quarters reported that flexible working allows them to concentrate better.

However, in another report by the Equal Opportunities Commission, it highlighted that the UK is significantly lagging behind its European counterparts, when it comes to flexible working, and is failing to make use of innovative working methods.

No excuses

Phil Flaxton, chief executive of Work Wise UK, says that UK management needs to stop making excuses and modernise. “Smarter working practices are not only infinitely better for the workforce, they actually improve productivity,” he emphasises. “BT, a major employer in the UK, has reported productivity improvements of 20 per cent where it has introduced smarter working practices.”

“Flexible working can be a powerful benefit to employees who are likely to feel more loyal to an employer who gives them greater control over their time.”

Gillian Dowling, employment technical consultant, Croner

Gillian Dowling, employment technical consultant at Croner, remarks that it is very important that employers consider the benefits that flexible working can bring to the business. “It can improve employee relations and staff morale, and set themselves apart from the competitors to attract and retain the best talent.”

She adds that today’s employees are increasingly looking for perks that help them balance their work and home life. “Flexible working can be a powerful benefit to employees who are likely to feel more loyal to an employer who gives them greater control over their time.”

Yet at present, the only legislation in the UK that entitles employees to request flexible working arrangements is for those with children under six years-old (or 18 if disabled) and those who are ‘carers’ of adults.

The right to request

So, given the potential benefits of flexible working for both employer and employees, should all staff have the right to request flexible working, regardless of their circumstances?

HR consultant Christine Lonsdale says they should definitely have the right to request it, and the employer must take that request seriously. “Many employees have different needs in respect of their family lives,” she remarks. “I think that a lot of employers just dismiss requests without thinking about them because they can do so without repercussions at the moment. I think so long as it remains as a right to request, the employers are more open to looking at alternatives and still have the option of denying the request if it can be justified.”

This sentiment is echoed by HR consultant Sandra Beale. “I believe companies should make flexible working available to all employees regardless of circumstances, but obviously the final decision will depend on business needs,” she comments. “I have worked for organisations in the past that have been absolutely terrified of offering flexible working to all employees because they anticipated the flood gates opening – yet this is rarely the case.”

She adds: “I did a survey on pay and benefits for a charity a couple of years ago and top of the list was the wish for flexible working – not financial benefits!”

Rob Smith is senior HR advisor at DAS, a financial services company. The firm operates flexi-time for the majority of its office staff. “We allow any member of staff to apply for flexible working, regardless of service, age, sex and so on, and all are considered on a first-come, first-served basis,” he explains. “The requests can only be refused on the same grounds as the statutory requests.”

“When staff are given flexibility to allow them to fulfil their commitments outside of work, they are more productive and motivated to fulfil their commitments within work.”

Rob Smith, senior HR advisor

He adds that all requests are considered objectively and probably around 95 per cent are accepted. “We ask that requests are discussed informally with managers, before a formal request is submitted, and most are resolved and agreed on the informal route.”

Andrea Cooper, HR manager at Anson Ltd, says that her organisation has a flexible working request policy where anyone can request it and the individual is asked to do the research as to how it can be accommodated. The request is then granted if the department can accommodate it through any means available.

Cooper says the main advantage is that it allows them to keep existing knowledge and skills, however, the company has encountered a few disadvantages too. “On a few occasions, once someone’s hours are reduced or changed, they have been unwilling to be flexible, whereas they were before,” she explains. “It can also often increase the burden on work colleagues.”

However, Cooper adds that they have turned a few requests down and it hasn’t affected staff turnover. “We accommodate what we can and when we can’t, we ensure we explain this thoroughly to the individual. They usually understand or we try to find some middle ground.”

Good retention tool

Beale says that introducing flexible working is a great retention tool. “Employees who need to work flexible hours for whatever reason will stay with a company if these are offered and look elsewhere if the answer is no,” she remarks.

Smith believes that the flexi-time policy that operates at his organisation helps with loyalty and retention. “When staff are given flexibility to allow them to fulfil their commitments outside of work, they are more productive and motivated to fulfil their commitments within work,” he says. “It also reduces staff turnover because when there is a conflict between work and home commitments, it is more likely that an employee will forego their work commitments.”

Lonsdale explains that flexible working has many advantages. “Staff are more productive, for instance, many have found that the majority of the work they used to do in five days, now takes only three. It is also less stressful for employees, when they have to cope with busy home lives as well as full time working.

“It helps to retain key skills within the business,” she adds. “Much of my work is in the motor trade with specialised IT systems and many of the employers have found that by agreeing to flexible working they have retained staff skilled in these areas.”

Beale advises employers to have a good flexible working policy in place, providing clear guidelines of procedure, and Lonsdale adds: “The employer must consider the request fully and, if denying the request, it must be able to justify the business reasons why.”

It remains to be seen whether the current legislation will extend to all employees in future, but there certainly seems to be good reason to think about offering some kind of flexible working arrangements now so that you can start to reap the benefits as soon as possible.

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