Realising the business benefits of flexible working

Nobody’s asking for it. Many employers claim that they are open to flexibility or have a policy in place, but whether this perception is filtering down is another story. A government survey found that nine in every ten firms offer flexible working, but a recent YouGov poll suggests 42 per cent of employees both male and female would feel uncomfortable discussing these options. Part of the problem is the stigma attached to flexible working as a ‘women’s issue’ or a fear that requesting flexible arrangements might raise questions about dedication or career aspirations.

Flexible working is not a new feature in the UK but has until recently been mainly reserved for women returning from maternity leave. New legislation has now opened out the option to all and levelled the playing field for men and women by offering partners a choice through shared parental leave. However, these changes alone will not be enough to shift societal norms.

Read more about shared parental leave:

Success comes in small steps starting with signalling from the top. If the leadership team has not bought into the idea, than neither will the rest. We spoke with companies such as Eversheds for Inspire’s Diversity Toolkit, who shared with us their ‘FlexAble’ approach which they piloted in their Cambridge office. 

Testing the waters, they replaced a rigid scheme to an informal approach that puts the decision making into the hands of their employees and their line managers. What they saw during this period was an increase in productivity from 82 per cent to over 90 per cent, 60 per cent felt more valued and trusted and 30 per cent felt they were more recognised than before.

Makes good business sense. The benefits are clear and it is time to move the debate on from being just about caring responsibilities. Flexibility should be a two-way dialogue to work out mutually beneficial arrangements. Building trust and offering individuals a choice in how they manage their work-life balance increases morale, productivity and improves the employer brand as a workplace of choice.

Perhaps there is still a low level of awareness about what exactly ‘flexible’ means and whether it can work for smaller businesses or in particular industries. Part of a recruiter’s role is to help facilitate these conversations on behalf of candidates and working with employers to create jobs that are flexible by default. Flexible working has become part of the Harvey Nash culture, although this has not always been the case. Individuals are measured by output rather than hours in the office, which now seems so obvious.

Over the years we have learned through talking with many businesses that each journey will be unique and those that have been successful in driving cultural change were determined and not afraid to try something new. It can work for businesses of all shapes and sizes, not just the largest players but it may take a bit more creativity and trust. And who knows, the next five years might bring another surprising technological advancement that leaves us scratching our heads why we ever wrote articles like this!

Carol Rosati is director at Harvey Nash and founder of board-level women’s network Inspire.

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