Last month the government released a proposal to consultation for laws which could see employees have the legal right to submit flexible working requests from their first day in a new job. Previously employees had to wait until they have been in their role for six months, so this is quite a change.
These proposals would not only see more people accessing flexible working but are also likely to speed up flexible working process and force firms to explain why any requests were previously refused. But is this the dream scenario we have all been waiting for?
HR professionals already know that previously many of the requests for flexible working were not agreed, regardless of who requested it and why
The flexible working dream
In my third job, I was headhunted into a senior HR role at an investment bank from a firm of accountants where I had enjoyed a fair bit of flexibility. I was a single mother to a 12-year-old, and I asked the HR Director if I could work flexibly. He responded that of course I could, “in the evening and at weekends.” This was a company where 7am to 7pm were the core hours and in reality, our days were often much longer.
And the sentiment above is nothing unusual; it’s an attitude that many employers have long held. One which focuses on presenteeism and that you need to be visible and, in the office, to produce good work.
However, the pandemic put change to this – and dramatically so. It forced every employer to allow their teams to work remotely (if they could do so) overnight. Of course, this way of working didn’t suit everyone, but it certainly opened everyone’s eyes to a totally new approach; to socialising at work and working at home.
And not only this but being able to more visibly prioritise mental health too. So rather than lose that learning and quickly revert back to our to pre pandemic working, I for one, hope we can gain from it and lead the charge to a totally different way of working that is inclusive and helps us attract the best talent for our organisations.
How can HR make the difference?
HR professionals already know that previously many of the requests for flexible working were not agreed, regardless of who requested it and why. In general, there has been a fixed and closed mindset that flexible working is working less hard. Or that one has to earn it.
HR has a real role to play now to lead the discussions that will help change the culture within our organisations
Organisations regularly look for reasons to say no to it, rather than trial it, fearing they may set a precedent. Others have adopted an approach where maternity returners get it automatically, but no-one else does which causes resentment and difficult team dynamics.
However, a new issue has come into play now in 2021; organisations (of all sizes) have a talent crisis. Everyone has vacancies that they can’t fill, we are facing the ‘great resignation’ and candidates are increasingly stating their own terms once a job has been offered. And this includes flexibility.
We already know those without access to flexible working are around twice as likely to be dissatisfied in their job, compared to those who do. This means that HR has a real role to play now to lead the discussions that will help change the culture within our organisations and influence the growth mindset to work in a new way. We need to make this less about flexible working – which is still an emotive topic – and more about competing for talent, working in a more efficient way, and creating a modern fit for purpose workplace.
Implications for HR
Of course, not only does HR need to be a key driver in cultural change, but the new proposed changes will also have multiple implications too. These are ten implications for HR and people professionals around the new flexible working proposals.
1. Workforce Planning
This is critical, and HR, Finance and Managers all need a strong knowledge not only of how many employees they need but with what experience and skill sets their business will require going forwards. They will also need a sharp talent acquisition strategy about where their future staff are currently working and how to attract them.
2. HR Analytics
HR need to have more data led conversations with leaders about what the workforce needs to survive and thrive. If they don’t have access to up to date, fit for purpose HR technology, then now is the time to work on a compelling business case.
Employment is a fluid concept and often the talent and introductions that organisations seek to fill vacancies or complete work is hiding in plain sight
3. Time or Task?
With everything being up for grabs from hours to location, it is time to rethink employee reward and terms of engagement and then communicate this to everyone working in your organisation as well as those you would like to attract?
4. Policies or Principles
Although much activity around paperwork generation is driven to prevent successful claims Employee Tribunals, this is also a huge opportunity to move towards core principles, so everyone understands what is expected.
5. Employees or Workers or Consultants?
Employees are a core part of the infrastructure, but all too often HR have little idea or any connection with those that are workers or freelance consultants. Employment is a fluid concept and often the talent and introductions that organisations seek to fill vacancies or complete work is hiding in plain sight.
6. Wellbeing, Welfare and Wellness
HR can appear more concerned with IR35 compliance than the welfare of those working in their organisation. We all recognise the importance of wellbeing and any initiatives that benefit everyone working in the organisation are to be applauded.
7. Career mapping
HR should be leading the way on mapping the careers of employees and fronting up that one organisation may not be able to offer all the development an individual needs. Accountancy firms are especially good at this; people often return to senior roles, having originally trained with a firm, but gained experience elsewhere. Far from being disloyal this is a pragmatic and strategic move.
8. Employee engagement
Organisations need new and better ways to connect with their employees. And by this I don’t just mean the ones currently working, but also the ones that may do so in the future or have done so already but left because they could not work flexibly or needed experience elsewhere. HR need CRM more than ever!
Nothing has exposed the importance of human resources professionals to the extent which the Covid-19 pandemic has
9. Flexible working review
Rather than wait for an individual to request to work flexibly (whilst secretly hoping they don’t) I would contend it is time to start doing the opposite. Leading a pro-active review of all the roles in your organisation and identifying which could be done flexibly, from home, from a non-UK location, part-time, freelance or even term time only, will show your employees just how seriously you are taking their needs.
10. Culture is king
It goes without saying that any initiative that creates a culture of performance optimisation where people enjoy going to work, is the holy grail. HR have a key role to play in creating a culture that enables everyone to thrive and flourish.
Nothing has exposed the importance of human resources professionals to the extent which the Covid-19 pandemic has. Over the last two years, HR practitioners have become a sought-after resource for concerned business leaders on the hunt for clarity and alignment. The profession has been given no choice, but to step up and lead the charge. And I believe that when it comes to changing the attitude in our organisations towards flexible working, the situation is no different.
We as HR and people professionals have a pivotal role to play in supporting employers to develop the right culture and approach to support a more flexible workforce. Now is the time to step up and lead the change that we seek to create the companies where we can all love what we do and how we do it.
Interested in this topic? Read Flexible working: a vital differentiator in a challenging labour market.