In a flexible working arrangement, an employee has some say over how, where or when they work. Whether this involves working from home, working part-time, job sharing or having another kind of flexitime arrangement, generally workers benefit from an element of freedom to define a working arrangement that supports their lifestyle.
Tom Neil is a guidance writer for ACAS, the non-departmental body of the Government that works throughout the UK to prevent and resolve employment disputes. “All employees who have worked for their employer for more than 26 weeks are entitled to make a request for flexible working,” he explains. However, whilst half of UK employers offer flexible working arrangements, a recent CBI report found that just one in 10 job listings mention flexible working. “More work needs to be done on understanding the benefits that flexible working can bring to an organisation,” says Neil.
So, can flexible working arrangements benefit both employers and employees? And, what are the barriers preventing our workplaces from adopting these practices on a much wider scale?
The benefits of flexible working
Neil explains that for employees, the benefits of flexible working are often focused on improving their work-life balance, as well as looking after their health and wellbeing. However these arrangements also impact positively on productivity. “Research from the CIPD has shown that implementing flexible working practices can improve staff engagement and motivation,” Neil says. Natalie Pancheri, HR Policy Adviser at the London School of Economics (LSE) agrees. “The benefits of flexible working are well established, from increased employee engagement to better performance,” she says.
LSE has won recognition for its initiatives to support parents and carers in the workplace, recently being noted as a pioneer in Shared Parental Leave by the charity Working Families. While flexible working has historically been seen as a female or parental issue, Pancheri explains, “The benefits can and should apply to all staff whether you are disabled, a carer or simply seeking a better work-life balance.”
Pancheri describes flexible working as: “recognising that individuals have different needs both inside and outside of work.” This is true for Sharon Ellis, a working mother in her early 40s whose 13 year old daughter has special education needs (SEN). “Outside of school hours, it’s very difficult to get support,” says Ellis, explaining that with limited funding for transport and sparse local resources for after-school care, she often has to do the school run, which impacts on the number of hours she can work each week. Ellis was employed through Randstad to work as a mental health support worker at Preston University. Luckily for Ellis her employers support her need for a flexible working arrangement. “They’re really flexible,” she says. “I can manage my own timetable to suit my needs.”
Mandy Garner is the editor of workingmums.co.uk, a site set up in 2006 to act as a bridge between employers and women looking for new, flexible work positions. The site has since expanded, offering a section for dads, support on employment issues and a home business section. “Most of the workforce are likely to need flexible working at some point in their career,” says Garner. “Technology makes it increasingly easier to work flexibly (therefore) it makes no business sense not to offer it.” Garner has four children and has worked in various flexible arrangements, including working from home, working part-time and freelancing. “I basically work all the time, but flexibly so I can pick up the kids and deal with holidays, sickness, inset days and the like,” she says.
It’s not only employees who benefit from flexible working. As Neil explains, flexible arrangements often benefit the company or organisation, too. They can “help to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and enhance employee engagement and loyalty,” he explains. “It can greatly increase the pool of applicants for vacant roles, while helping to retain the experienced and skilled staff already there.”
Pancheri echoes this, explaining that for companies, offering flexible working arrangements means “attracting, retaining and developing the best possible workforce.” At the same time, it can benefit a company financially. “We also know from research that staff can often value flexibility over other more traditional forms like remuneration, so there’s a positive financial implication for organisations to consider too,” she explains.
According to Pancheri, offering flexible working is also about doing the ‘right thing’. “Embedding a culture of flexibility begins to chip away at the types of issues that can prevent women from advancing their careers, as well as making sure that this becomes the norm rather than ‘special treatment’ that may be resented by others,” she says.
What are the barriers?
Ellis used to work as a joiner, but after having her daughter, she knew she’d have to find a job which offered a flexible working arrangement. Ellis went back to college as a mature student and retrained as a counsellor. She began working for a charity that was supportive of her needs, but was later made redundant as a result of government cuts. “It took me from May till September to find a job that allowed me to work around my daughter,” she explains. None of the roles Ellis initially applied for in that interim period were willing to offer job splits – all wanted one person who could work full-time.
Ellis’s situation is not unique. According to an annual survey conducted by workingmums.co.uk, the lack of flexible working options, along with childcare costs, prevent mothers from returning to work. “Our recent survey showed 18% of mums had been forced to leave their work when flexible working was not allowed,” confirms Garner.
It’s not only a problem for working mothers. “Research shows that dads also want more flexibility,” says Garner. “Enabling dads to work flexibly is crucial to greater workplace equality,” she insists. Furthermore, Garner’s surveys indicate younger employees are starting to expect and want flexible working arrangements too.
According to Neil, many employees are not fully aware of their rights regarding flexible working. “To actually ask your employer to change your working arrangements can be a substantial and potentially uncomfortable concept,” he explains. “However (workers) should feel reassured that they do have the right to ask to work more flexibly and are protected from suffering any detriment related to it,” he adds.
Whilst employers have the right to reject a flexible working proposal if they have a good business reason for doing so, employees can make a claim to an employment tribunal if they believe their request has not been fairly handled. “Understanding the issues that the business may have with your request can be really important,” says Neil, who sees finding a flexible working arrangement that suits both parties as an important hurdle to overcome. “It means that you are better prepared to suggest ways that any negative impact on the business can be mitigated.”
Future hopes for flexible working
Neil believes that for an organisation to attract and retain a happy and productive workforce, employers need to think beyond the basic legal requirements around flexible working. “That means running a business in an open-minded and adaptable manner,” he says. “Most roles can accommodate some sort of flexible working arrangement … compromise from the employee and the employer can often lead to an outcome that works for everyone,” he adds.
Garner agrees. “Flexible working is most effective if it works for all parties … there has been a lot around recently about employers using flexible working to basically exploit workers,” she cautions, referring to the insecurity that comes with zero hour contracts. Looking forward, Garner adds: “As people stay in work longer and have to balance that with caring responsibilities for older relatives, the need for flexible working will only increase.”
Today, Ellis runs her own private counselling and psychotherapy business alongside her role as a support worker at Preston University. She also volunteers locally, supporting other parents who have children with disabilities. “You’ve got to work for it, but it is possible,” she says. “I’m really pleased with how things have worked out.”
Pancheri believes that in order to make flexible working a national success, the pre-existing culture, habits and mind-set of many organisations needs to be challenged. All of which takes time. “We are in the early stages of looking at ‘agile working’ and what that could look like at the LSE. Agile working is a bit of a game changer but appears to be gaining support so far,” she says. “Flexible working isn’t about being a parent anymore; it’s what the millennial generation of workers are coming to expect and it is something organisations should be embracing and seeking to embed wherever possible.”
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