Flexible working: a future approach to employment

Monday, 4th February 2019

Guest blog by Alison Bull, Mills & Reeve

An interesting and thought-provoking discussion took place at the pro-manchester seminar on 24 January. Organised by the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion committee, the event involved 4 panellists giving their views on a range of questions, sharing their experience and their particular perspective.

Alison Bull, partner and family lawyer and mediator with Mills & Reeve LLP chaired the panel, and introduced the topic with reference to a survey carried out by Timewise in 2018, who reviewed over 6 million job adverts for “quality” posts (with salaries of £20,000+ FTE). Only 11.1% of those posts offered flexible working, whereas the demand for flexible working was estimated to be approximately 87%.

The audience then participated in a short interactive poll, which found that:

  • 86% work in businesses that have a flexible working policy, and the rest don’t, or don’t know whether there is a policy
  • 75% work flexibly, with 31% “just doing it”, 28% doing so after an informal request, and 16% after a formal request.
  • 65% felt that working flexibly doesn’t/wouldn’t affect their career prospects, but a significant minority of 35% felt that it does (or would).

Heather Lacey, Global Entity Senior Co-ordinator for Eversheds Sutherland, explained how important it is for employers to be flexible around the working arrangements for employees, generally and especially for those with a disability, to retain people, maximise productivity and help create a workplace culture that will attract people in a competitive recruitment market.  There was a discussion about what flexibility can mean; whether home-working, flexible timing, compressed hours or different working patterns than the traditional 9-5.  The arrangements can be many and varied; Alison mentioned that, for example, Mills & Reeve currently have over 300 different working patterns on the firm’s HR system.

Duane Cornell, co-founder of Realm Recruit, spoke about the importance of culture to attract and retain staff; and in particular the need to avoid presenteeism and to have honest conversations with people as individuals; to understand what they want and need from a workplace setting, and with employers so that we are attracting people with the right skillset and motivations who can deliver what we need.  The discussion referenced how critical it is to engender trust in the employer/employee relationship so that flexible arrangements work.

Adrian Stevenson, of Workplace, our hosts for the session, explained how the demand for co-working environments outside of the home and away from the typical office setting is increasing.  There are different co-working settings available in the Manchester area, ranging from those that are likely to be attractive to a younger workforce, perhaps in the tech or marketing sectors, to those like Workplace that offer a relaxed and slightly more traditionally business-like environment, influenced by experience from the hospitality industry. Workplace was very comfortable, well-equipped and Adrian and his team were very welcoming and excellent hosts.

Donna Smith, senior business partner in HR at Grant Thornton, mentioned the importance of flexible working for our mental well-being, and the need for personal choice and consideration of individuals’ needs in order to create a productive inclusive work culture that accommodates everyone; millenials to those approaching retirement. She referred to the compelling evidence that supports flexible working being a business imperative; increasing productivity, commitment and loyalty of staff, and creating a culture that will attract and retain new and existing talent, as well as mentioning initiatives such as collaboration days (more below).

Practical points/ideas to come out of the discussion included:

  • Collaboration days; diarised days for teams who have diverse working patterns to meet up in the office regularly; once a week/fortnight/month as appropriate, either for a particular purpose such as a project meeting, or just to work in the same space together, to chat and catch up.
  • Greater use of skype/telcons to keep channels of communication open and in use; to reassure those who are less-trusting/sceptical about the benefits are kept up to date and can see or hear what everyone is doing, and to ensure collaboration and fend off silo-working situations.
  • The need for everyone to have effective technology either at home or that is portable depending on what flexibility is needed.
  • The possibility that there be a backlash against home-working, if businesses put in place home-working arrangements for people who value going out to work each day and for whom the human interaction is so key to their well-being.
  • The need for individual, personalised solutions that also meet the needs of the business.
  • Businesses needing to focus on output rather than hours worked, and the sea change that this will require in some sectors; particularly in professional services still operating on a time cost rather than output basis.

Questions asked by the audience included:

  • At what point do you think flexible working will be an integral part of business across all industries?

The panel and the audience recognised that in some sectors there is less flexibility; and the needs of the business must be met. However creative solutions that are not initially obvious may be found; if one looks for them. Whilst, eg homeworking will not be possible for all, there may be other ways in which flexibility maybe introduced in some industries to accommodate particular needs. Adrian referred to this being difficult in the hospitality sector in which staff need to be physically present. However, flexible working patterns are the norm.

  • How would you recommend addressing people in the office with negative views of flexible working – even where HR policies support it?

This question raised the wider issue of creating a workplace culture in which behaviours and policies are aligned, and in which negative behaviours are explored, addressed, and when needs be called out.  The panel referred to the importance of business leaders practising what they preach. Donna mentioned the example of business leaders attending a personal training session in the middle of the day, or leaving early to do a school or nursery pick up, or to visit a poorly parent, and how important it is that these appointments are visible in our calendars; not hidden as private appointments.

  • How do you manage flexible working when some people can do their job at home and others have to physically be at work to perform their job. How do you manage fairness?

Heather recognised this as a challenge facing her, and her team and firm. She, and the panel recognised that workplace culture and good communication are very important when addressing this challenge. If the culture is one in which an open dialogue takes place, then perceived unfairness may be identified and addressed.  Ultimately, if the business needs require certain working arrangements, then the workforce should recognise that. However, how this identified and communicated may create, or preferably dispel feelings of unfairness.

  • How can we encourage companies to offer flexible working during the recruitment process?

We all have a part to play here. The results of our poll today (although not statistically authoritative) suggest that flexible working in practice is far more prevalent than the advertised vacancies looked at by Timewise last year suggest. When making recruitment decisions, when applying for jobs, or operating recruitment agencies, we can all influence this. The demand appears to be there, and the opportunities also. It may be the case that the process of recruitment has yet to catch up with what potential employees want and need, but in the race to attract new talent this seems likely to change.

  • Are there any legal issues to consider where we encourage staff to work from home or remotely?

The short answer is yes! There is useful guidance and information on the ACAS website, and in particular this guide here: http://www.acas.org.uk/media/pdf/7/r/Homeworking-a-guide-for-employers-and-employees.pdf

In conclusion, the seminar showed that there is a need to deliver flexible working arrangements as an essential part of business and professional working life. This is an evolving area, and of critical importance in promoting an effective business culture, and an ability to attract and retain motivated, productive and healthy people.