How SMEs can prosper from a flexible work culture

A webinar for National Work Life Week focused on how SMEs can make the most out of flexible working.

SME or Small and medium-sized enterprises smartphone web business - the organic agency


The UK has 1.4m SMEs and they account for three fifths of the workforce. Yet they face unique challenges when it comes to implementing flexible and family-friendly working. They often don’t have an HR expert on hand to help them roll out policies so they need innovative solutions since every sector is affected by labour shortages and research clearly shows that flexible working is what workers want.

As part of National Work Life Week, the charity Working Families held a webinar which focused on supplying some innovative ideas. Three employers from different sectors shared how they approached flexible working.

Saira Demmer is CEO of SF Recruitment which centres on recruitment in the financial and professional services sectors. She said that before she joined three years ago the company had operated along traditional, fairly rigid lines, with long hours, low employee engagement and high churn rates of employees being common. Fast forward and it now has a fully flexible model. Not only has it cut churn and boosted employee engagement in the process, said Demmer, but it has experienced year on year growth of more than 50%.

Demmer said the transformation came as the company was forced to be more flexible as a result of Covid. It found that not only did it cope with people working online, but people were more productive. Demmer had her first child at around this time and Covid highlighted for her the need for family friendly policies. All of this inspired her to embed a fully flexible model. SF Recruitment is a people business so she said it is still important for people to come together regularly to collaborate and share knowledge. It opted therefore for a hybrid model, but let each team decide how that would work best rather than mandate it from the top. Typically, Demmer said, people come in two days a week. On the other days they can work wherever, whenever and however they want. “We only ask that they deliver good outcomes for their team members and clients,” she commented.

SF Recruitment also gives employees flexibility over how they want to do their job, based on a culture of trust rather than a one-size-fits-all model, as long as they get their work done. She said a lot of the time people don’t choose to work hugely different patterns, but having the choice means they are not stressed when they need to, for instance, start later or finish earlier. “It has had a huge impact on people’s productivity and focus,” said Saira, adding that people are very aware that flexibility goes both ways and that flexible working is not just a benefit but drives better business outcomes.  Productivity, measured in sales per consultant per month, has risen by a huge 80% since pre-Covid days.

The churn rate of employees leaving the company has fallen significantly as a result – from 46% to just 14%. Employee engagement is so high that the company was featured in the top 10 of best companies to work for. The company has increased the channels it has for employees to feed ideas back to senior leaders and 75% of the suggestions are implemented. The management structure has been flattened so the distance between employees and decision makers is smaller and they feel they can have a greater impact. The company also engages in a lot of charity work which also helps to bring workers together.

When it comes to recruitment, Demmer said SF Recruitment is clear from the offset about what its flexible culture means rather than, for instance, saying it is open to flexible working discussions which Demmer says puts the onus on individuals to negotiate. For instance, its flexible working culture is embedded in the employee brand brochure that people have access to as part of the recruitment process. That approach has helped it to attract high calibre talent.


Heather Melville-Hume, HR manager at Independent Living Forum Scotland [ILF] joined the organisation, which supports people with disabilities, in July 2021, having suffered from a stroke which resulted in associated disabilities and having been widowed in a period of just six weeks. For her flexible working is key and she said joining ILF was “life-changing” for her, enabling her to continue in her professional career. ILF has grown by a third during Covid to over 60 employees, in large part thanks to its flexible working culture which meant that it could quickly pivot to remote working without a day’s work being lost.

Melville-Hume said the flexible culture, role modelled by senior leaders, means the organisation can be inclusive of a whole range of workers who are, for instance, able to cut their commutes, take part in the Great North Run or pick their children up from school. She said flexible working is about understanding people’s individual circumstances and making things work for them so that their experience can be retained by the organisation, recruitment costs and sickness can be reduced and those who the organisation works for have better outcomes. ILF cannot perhaps compete with higher-paying private companies, but its caring culture offers something money can’t buy. “I have never worked with such motivated and engaged people before,” said Melville-Hume. “Working with ILF Scotland is addictive.”

Feedback channels

Jon Mortimer is Chief Operating Officer of real PE, a teaching and learning aid which aims to enable teachers to plan and deliver an inclusive PE curriculum. It has seen a 45% growth in membership in the last year and it now has 45 employees. It has a big focus on being present both at work and outside work. It conducts an annual survey to get employee feedback on how it operates and how it can improve. Flexible working is written into its job descriptions so candidates know they can discuss it. The company also has a big focus on wellbeing and runs ‘ask us anything’ sessions. Other benefits include participation in charity events, Christmas hampers for staff, a cost of living payment and a staff care group which organised a series of events for National Work Life Week with all members of staff being sent vegetable growing kits. Mortimer said that the company is looking at how to personalise the employee life cycle and is constantly reviewing its benefits to see if they can be enhanced.

Jane van Zyl, chief executive of Working Families, asked how each employer had got senior buy-in for their flexible policies. Demmer said it was more a leap of faith based on trust in her track record and her arguments.  Melville-Hume said the culture at ILF comes from the top and it is more a question of ensuring new joiners understand it and that they practise self care. Mortimer said it was like pushing at an open door and that people had lots of ways they could feed back on their experiences. Demmer concluded, saying that flexible working cannot be done in isolation and that it should be matched by flexibility in the way the business operates. 


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