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What is flexible working?

12 min read  |   11 November, 2021   By Aimee O'Callaghan

Lady working flexibly on her laptop
    

The landscape of flexible working has changed drastically over the past few years. Post-pandemic, employers have had to adopt (or adapt) flexible working policies and now, hybrid working models.

But adapting to flexible policies doesn't mean that work has to suffer- far from it. Our Culture Economy Report revealed that 9 in 10 SMEs maintained productivity levels whilst working remotely during the pandemic. 

So, if you're an HR manager who's currently perched on the flexible-working fence and not sure which side to take; read on.

We'll explore:

The office is running smoothly, your employees are in at 9 and leave at 5:30. It’s seems productive and you’re happy. But then Sally in accounts asks to work at home one day a week, David from sales wants to go part-time and Denise puts in a request to start later on certain days. But can it really work? Here's what we found. 

Managers who sway towards the more agile mindset are finding that flexible working hours and locations can help towards managing external work-life stressors. 

As more companies attempt to adapt to the increasing demands of mobile and agile workforces, HR managers and SME business owners are left wondering whether flexible working can work for their business. Let's delve in. 

what is flexible working?

 

What is flexible working?

An alternative to traditional-working hours, flexible working includes working from home or flexible start and finish times. Whether it's part-time working, job sharing, early finishes, late starts, working from home or away, logging on at cafés, hot desking or even picking your own hours, flexible working helps to put your people first.

By tailoring working-hours and locations to suit your employees and business you can help save valuable time and stress across the workplace. 

Employees have a right to ask for flexible working. We believe it's best to view the switch as an opportunity for your business to develop and test out some of the components of agile working.

Flexible and remote working has increased in popularity by over 91% during the last decade, which is equal to a 159% rise since 2005. 

Thanks to clever HR software and advances in technology, flexible working is now easier to manage. What with the advance in video conferencing, storing documents in the cloud and readily available mobile WiFi, it’s not always necessary for staff to complete their jobs by being physically present in an office.

In September 2020, Working Families (a UK charity which provides employers with the tools, guidance, and policies required to build flexible and family-friendly cultures) surveyed 26 UK employers and found that there has been a general leap forward in flexible working during the pandemic. 

While 49% of organisations said that at least half of their staff flexed their hours before the crisis, this jumped to 85% during the pandemic. 

The figures also showed that many organisations planned to continue flexible working when the pandemic came to an end. 67% of employers planned to allow most staff to continue flexing their hours, and 71% expected to allow most employees to work at least partly remotely. 

 

Types of flexible working

There are many different ways of working flexibly. These include:

  • Part-time working – employees are contracted to work less than standard, basic, full-time hours.
  • Working from home – employees will spend all or part of the week working from home or somewhere else away from the working premises.
  • Job sharing – a full-time job can be split between two employees who agree the hours between them.
  • Compressed hours – employees cover their standard working hours in fewer working days.
  • Flexi-time – employees have the freedom to work in any way they choose outside a set of core hours determined by the employer.
  • Phased retirement - since the phase out of the default retirement age in April 2012, mature workers can now decide what age they wish to stop working. This means they can reduce their hours and work part time.

Before the law changed, the rules in the working world were much more rigid. This change in law intended to encourage a much wider range of applicants to submit requests to their employers. 

Calculate UK part-time and pro-rata holiday allowances with Breathe's handy holiday calculator. 

 

Flexible working for SMEs: the benefits

One of the biggest misconceptions about flexible working is that it's only fit for parents, guardians or carers. That's no longer the case. 

Flexible working is particularly well-suited for SMEs due to company size and logistics. As a small business, incorporating those ideals into your company can seem counterproductive initially but not only are you likely to increase your staff retention rates, have a happier workforce and improved productivity, you’ll also have a wider pool of talent to choose from when it comes to recruiting.

And then there's the benefits for employees. They speak for themselves. It can help staff feel less watched and micromanaged, and encourage independent thinking and problem solving.

The benefits of flexible working are widely noted. According to a survey of 8,000 global employers and employees, 83% reported productivity improvements from flexible working. A further 61% believe it's increased company profits.

 

Advantages of flexible working for employers

Happy workers make productive workers, which means you can enjoy greater growth and a healthier bottom line. Flexible working is a great way to achieve this because it shows you care about your staff’s wellbeing and are actively nurturing your company culture

It can also help to empower staff by encouraging autonomy, trust and personal investment in the company. Think: 'you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours'. 

Offering flexible working when you’re recruiting can also increase the number of potential candidates – some of those might be exceptionally talented and a real asset to your organisation but might not have applied if flexible working wasn’t on offer. 

It’s not just recruitment flexible working is good for – it can help staff retention too. As well as creating an overall impression that you’re a fair and flexible employer, it can also be used to keep talented existing staff whose personal circumstances might have changed and would leave if they couldn’t move to a more flexible working pattern.

 

Advantages of flexible working for employees

Employees benefit from flexible working because it allows them to fit in around family and personal commitments. For example, an employee who has to start caring for an elderly parent could still carry out their job effectively when working from home two days a week. This relieves added stress while allowing them to juggle both private and work responsibilities successfully.

It also gives employees greater control over their own working schedule and can help reduce commute times. Recent train strikes have been a nightmare for workers commuting to London but being able to work remotely has meant work can still be done.

Go one step further and start managing people, not paper, with Breathe's cloud-based, automated HR software. Take the pressure off employee admin by letting them check and request holiday, note sickness, track performance reviews and much more. 

Need time to decide? Take a 14-day trial completely on us. No credit card required, absolutely no strings attached. 

 

Disadvantages of flexible working

It would be nice to say flexible working was perfect in every way but as with all business policies it does have its drawbacks for both employers and employees. 

As an employer or manager, you might find certain members of staff take advantage of flexible working a little too much – slacking off or heading out with friends when they should be working for you. Flexible working isn’t great for customer-facing roles either such as for staff working in a shop or assistants in a nursing home. It can also make it much harder to make sure your company’s processes are still carried out as they should be.

However, it's not always the best idea for staff motivation and morale. The less time in the office, the more chance that they'll miss out on integrating into office culture and your team. Try to mitigate this by organising work socials and encouraging integration from the top.

Flexible working can impact an employee's home-life routine, blurring the lines between work and personal. If they are constantly checking emails or answering calls regardless what time it is, it can be difficult to switch off and they could be at risk of burnout.

Nip this in the bud before it begins by encouraging your employees to prioritise workloads and set boundaries.  

Why Breathe chose a flexible working policy

Being a people-first business, it felt like natural progression for us to allow our teams to have more autonomy in their working lives.

We believed this would have a positive impact on engagement and productivity, and that it will help us to recruit and retain the best talent for the business.

Everyone has a statutory right to request a flexible working arrangement under the Flexible Working Regulations 2014, but we wanted a more agile scheme that is readily available, offers continuous flexibility and does not require a contractual change.

Step 1: Planning and research

We started by researching different options around flexible working and speaking to other organisations in our network about their experiences.

We then designed a scheme which we believed would work well for our business. We named this 'Breathe-Flex'.

We considered how the scheme might affect different teams, especially those that are customer-facing.

The next stage was to gain buy-in from the leadership and management teams, which is key for any scheme to be successful.

As part of this process we had meetings to discuss the scheme proposal, expected benefits and to iron out any concerns that were raised. We were open to feedback and made changes to the scheme as a result.

We created a policy - as although we wanted the scheme to be as flexible as possible and avoid too many rules - we also needed to set some defined boundaries for people to work within.

Lastly, the best part was being able to present this exciting new initiative to the rest of the company.

Step 2: Introducing: 'Breathe-Flex'

We understood that people have different needs and preferences when it comes to flexible working, so we designed a scheme with multiple aspects so that everyone could benefit in some way.

The scheme is based on a weekly hours concept. This means that people still work their contracted hours, but with flexibility over start and finish times, duration of lunch breaks and the choice to have some shorter and longer days.

We also initially added the option to work from home for up to one day per week (Now, post-pandemic, this has increased). Core hours of 10am until 3.30pm apply to provide some structure to the working day.

The success of the scheme very much depends on teams working well together. We encouraged people to be considerate, creative and open to new ways of working.

One of the 'non-negotiables' of the scheme is that the availability and level of service should not be affected, so teams need to communicate well to ensure this is maintained.

We staggered the implementation of the scheme so that the change would be gradual and we could learn and adapt as we went along.

We had one team join at a time. When all teams were onboard, we started a 6 month trial.

What we learned

What went well

  • The scheme was very well received, with people reporting that it has made a real difference in being able to balance work and personal commitments.
  • The home-working day is proving useful for people to get headspace and work on projects outside of the office. This has had a positive impact on achievement of personal and company goals.
  • As we were already working remotely and had procedures in place to support our teams, this helped us hugely in adapting to the pandemic. 

What are the down-sides?

  • It was slightly more difficult for customer facing teams to use the scheme to its full potential.
  • It took extra time and communication to organise.
  • We've had to make some changes to building opening times and key holders so that people can access the office outside of the usual times.

Despite these points, though, the benefits of the scheme far outweigh the challenges we came across.

The Good Work Plan

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant many businesses have had to fundamentally re-think the way they operate, manage their people and enable them to work flexibly. Many businesses were already on their way to implementing flexible working before the crisis. Long before people were even aware of COVID-19, the government had announced the launch of The Good Work Plan with the stated aim:

To ensure that workers can access fair and decent work, that both employers and workers have the clarity they need to understand their employment relationships, and that the enforcement system is fair and fit for purpose".

Although The Good Work Plan has been overshadowed by the crisis, it was and is an important milestone in the adoption of flexible working. If there is anything good which can come out of this difficult year, hopefully it will be the widespread acceptance that flexible working is good for people and good for business and is something that is here to stay-  long after the crisis has ended.

Is flexible working right for my business?

Flexible working is great for so many employees and, in turn, businesses. For some though, it's simply not worth the stretch. That's why it's vital to evaluate both your team and organisation's strengths, weaknesses and obligations.

For example, do you manage a business that easily lends itself to flexible and remote working, i.e. can your people complete their job away from the office? 

If you need employees to be hands on and physically present to carry out their job, then it can prove trickier to implement

Research has shown staff often value work/life balance more than they do remuneration. By offering flexibility from the get-go you're more likely to attract a more diverse talent pool, improve productivity and manage happier, engaged staff. 

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