While a less rigid approach to office hours is increasingly commonplace, it’s not something that can be embraced without first considering all the implications, as these experts and SME owners explain.
According to recent reports, around two thirds of UK employees have some sort of flexible working arrangement – be that a part-time contract, the option to work from home, job sharing or flexible hours – and with employers legally obliged to at least consider requests from staff who want a more agile approach to their working week, it suggests that we are steadily inching towards a day where everyone will be able to work with some degree of flexibility.
For business owners who don’t yet offer their team anything other than the traditional 9 to 5, it could be time to start looking at the benefits – as well as the potential pitfalls – of flexible working.
Stephen Cowburn, an HR specialist with the London Group Business Advisors, says that while it comes with many positives, introducing flexible working can also lead to certain difficulties. “As a business gets bigger, the management of flexible working can become more difficult to schedule,” he says. “And, of course, once people have settled into a flexible working pattern, they may be less flexible to the changing needs of the business, meaning things can become administratively awkward and even potentially litigious. To really work, it requires flexibility on both sides.”
For Simon Proctor, MD of digital marketing specialists Ascent Digital, there are a number of golden rules to follow if flexible working – which at his firm equates to a start time anywhere between 8am and 10am as well as work-from-home days – is to be a success.
“It’s up to the individual to be responsible for managing their own time,” he says. “Making flexible working ‘work’ for you is all about having a mutual trust between employee and employer. It’s important that you can trust your team members to deliver high-quality work on time without being concerned about where they are working from or the time they are in the office.”
It’s not always easy: he says there have been instances in the past where some employees took advantage of the flexibility they were offered, putting in the bare minimum time and offering low-quality work in return. Despite this, he says, he chose not to make the other – hard-working – staff suffer by tightening up the firm’s flexibility policy. “If a team member can’t perform under flexible conditions, then they probably aren’t the right fit for the company,” he says.
Overall, Ascent’s approach to flexible working, says Proctor, has led to a boost in productivity. Clare Lassiter, senior HR consultant at Pure Human Resources, adds improvements in staff engagement and also better staff-retention levels to the list of common plus points.
“It’s a case of ‘you get what you give’,” she says. “Staff are happier to have more control over their time. Flexibility is increasingly seen as a key benefit, so employers need to embrace it to remain attractive to applicants, particularly when they aren’t able to offer more expensive benefits in tough times.”
Like Proctor, she also understands that less conscientious workers may need keeping an eye on and suggests that owners should bear this in mind. “Employers need to ensure that they have measures in place to make sure of their data security when staff are working elsewhere to prevent any breaches,” she adds.
“Making flexible working ‘work’ for you is all about having a mutual trust between employee and employer”
Simon Proctor, managing director, Ascent Group
Cowburn is quick to pick up on this, too: “It’s especially important now with GDPR,” he says. “As well as making sure you have software to protect you, it’s also important to make sure people’s behaviours are appropriate – I’m thinking about things like open phone lines at home and, perhaps, Gmail accounts instead of work ones. You need to know what your protocols are going to be.”
While Lassiter says that flexible working will not be a perfect fit for every business – “I’ve certainly advised managers not to feel obliged when the proposal seems likely to have a negative impact upon the business,” she says – she generally advises bosses to be open to the idea if they can be. “We all know how hard it can be to juggle all the things we have to do each week,” she says, “and also how hard it is to recruit and retain talent, so having a positive approach to requests for flexible working is not only the accommodating thing to do, but is also ultimately good for business.”
It’s a sentiment that is not lost on ‘mumpreneurs’ Philippa Doyle and Lisa Lessware, creators of an award-winning breastfeeding top named the Bshirt, who set out in business together 18 months ago. “For parents in particular, working traditional hours takes a huge chunk out of family life,” says Doyle. “Raising children is one of the most important jobs in society and yet this is incompatible with the traditional 9-to-5 way of working.”
As founders of a company that employs mostly working parents, Doyle and Lessware say they feel that offering flexible working hours allows them to show their employees how much they value them in their role as parents as well as on a professional level. “Our office hours are primarily 9 to 3; however, our office facilities are available 24/7 so employees can choose when to work,” says Doyle. “And working from home is encouraged, not begrudged.”
For anyone thinking of offering flexible working for the very first time, Doyle’s top tip is to plan ahead. “For example, we know that staff will be working reduced hours during the school holidays,” she says, “so we make sure that we keep the workload down during this period and try and set deadlines to happen during term time.”
Other than the occasional scheduling headache, Doyle sees no negatives. “As technology advances and four-day work weeks become more popular, we might all have whole summers off one day,” she says.