Greater flexible working is what people want and what businesses need. Employers just need a bit of extra support, a recognition that this is not easy, in order to get there.
Last week we released the results of our survey of employers. One of the most interesting ones, and something that has been a feature in past surveys, is the number of employers who struggle with implementing flexible working despite knowing the demand for it.
The survey showed employers anticipated a rising demand from across different demographic groups and many were said they were already advertising that they are open to flexible working with the majority saying they would do so in the future.
They know too that there is mounting political pressure to extend their offering on flexible working, with a bill tabled in the summer on getting employers to offer a day one right to request flexible working and pressure to make flexible working the norm. Flexible working also features in several party manifestos.
Yet 42% of employers said they would like more support to implement flexible working. Getting flexible working right and normalising it is not easy. Ask any employer who has tried to do it, particularly older, more traditional employers.
Undoing something that has been in place for decades and decades is much harder to do than starting up a company with flexibility built in.
There are other challenges for start-ups, however, including how to maintain systems of flexibility that have built up organically based on individual needs as a business grows.
Because of the way flexible working has evolved, through legislation based around individuals’ right to request, it has often occurred in an ad hoc fashion. What is needed, however, is a more strategic review of how organisations work, including a rethink of how different roles work and the implications for management.
Much has been made of the need for employers to move towards a style of management which is less about presenteeism and more about results, but the reality of changing traditional patterns of working and thinking about jobs is harder to shift.
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Some of the employers who struggle most with this are the larger SMEs who don’t have the agility of the start-ups and lack the HR resources of the bigger players. Getting line managers on board is a big issue because they face so many different pressures and because flexible working and some of the issues linked to it, such as diversity, are not given the priority they need and managers are not recognised sufficiently for addressing them effectively. That surely has to change.
Line managers can see the need for work life balance just as much as everyone else, but they need to not only have the tools to implement policies that help with it – whether that is toolkits, training, doing pilots to let sceptics see the benefits and so forth – but the support that it is business critical to get it right.
Some concerns that need addressing are worries about setting precedents [not an allowable reason for turning down a flexible working request, but one which comes up time and again], managing workloads of other members of teams where employees wanted reduced hours, communicating policies to clients and managing expectations.
Much more needs to be done to share ideas on how to make this all work. At workingmums.co.uk’s roundtables this is exactly what we try to do. They are a forum for employers to raise the challenges they face, but also to learn what others are doing and get ideas that they might adopt or tweak in their own organisation. White papers published after the events are circulated freely to other employers to get them thinking about how it might work for them.
Employers talking in-depth, for instance, about how they manage flexible teams, the strategic planning needed to get the most out of flexible working, is the kind of detail that can trigger creative thinking and stimulate change. Of course, it’s not enough to convince HR people.
They in turn have to make the case to senior leaders and to line managers. Moreover, none of this stuff can be solved by one initiative or one policy. It is something that needs to be reviewed, promoted, measured and challenged on a continuous basis to ensure things don’t slip back to what they used to be. That might mean structural changes, more systematic training for managers and perhaps a new category of expert for larger employers who can focus on the strategic thinking around building more productive, collaborative teams wherever employees are based.
Things in the world of work are changing very fast and doing things as normal is no longer the least risky approach. Greater flexible working is what people want and what businesses need. They just need a bit of extra support, a recognition that this is not easy, in order to get there.