Opinion

Small and growing firms should be more malleable when it comes to flexible working

6 min read

29 October 2015

Is flexible working allowed at your company? According to Anne Cantelo, the founder and MD of Onyx Media and Communications, a Soho-based PR agency, more SMEs should allow employees to work flexibly.

Cantelo attributes the success of her company to flexible working and urges others to follow suit.

Last year the government introduced legislation that gave all employees the legal right to request flexible working – not just parents and carers – as long as they have worked for the same employer for at least 26 weeks. Employers, according to the legislation, must deal with requests in a “reasonable manner”. The law gives examples of this that include: assessing the advantages and disadvantages of the application, holding a meeting to discuss the request with the employee and offering an appeal process.

A poll published last summer, just before the latest flexible working rights were introduced, revealed that 66 per cent of employees would request flexible working given the opportunity. However, the survey, by Jobsite, also revealed that 75 per cent were unaware of the changes that were coming.

As a service supplier, Cantelo recognised that Onyx would only be as good as the people she managed to attract and retain. “I decided to use flexible working as a way of attracting and affording quality senior staff, but without the expense of paying them to work full time,” she said. “Flexibility also extends to where people work from. Our team includes an ex-BBC journalist based in Rugby and they even have freelancers based in the US.” She urges other SMEs who are service providers to follow suit.

Given the freedom of flexible working, Cantelo finds that people work longer and harder and are far happier and more committed to the company and to their work. “It also means that the business has cover for our clients far longer than most businesses because people work at different times of the day and week,” she said. “That makes a huge difference to their ability respond to requests quickly and to meet journalists’ short deadlines.”

One thing that annoys Cantelo is that flexible working is often viewed as option that should only be offered to women. She argued that the question and assumptions behind it are long out dated.

Six practical ways to ensure successful flexible working

“It assumes that the only reason to allow flexible working is to help with child care and that child care is the sole responsibility of the mother,” she explained. “Surely we should have reached a point when men and their employers recognise that both men and women are responsible for their children? We will never achieve equality at work until we have this equality in the home. If both parents work flexibly to manage childcare the impact on each and their employer is lessened and children are happier.”

SMEs should embrace new technology to make flexible working easier and more effective, she suggested. Cantelo pointed to a product called NearDesk, which lets people rent desk space by the hour. “NearDesk recently launched an app to make it really easy to find the nearest desk space when you’re out and about, so if we have an emergency we can find a desk nearby in most UK cities,” she added. “Before then we would sometimes find ourselves perched in noisy coffee shops trying to use the WiFi while children ran around us, not ideal.”

Cantelo also urged fellow small business owners to get over the fear that flexible working is simply a way of allowing some employees to skive. How can you be sure that staff are actually working?

“I’ve always judged people on output, not on how long they’re sat a desk,” she said. “People can spend hours wasting time at work, just as they can at home. You therefore need to set clear expectations and then treat people as adults and stop worrying about time keeping – except obviously for meetings. If you complain when someone is five minutes late then you can’t complain if they become a clock watcher and disappear the minute your working day is over, whether or not you need them.”

She admitted that managing flexible working can be a challenge. “You need to be organised so that you know who is covering what,” she said. “But in the global economy unless you work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, everyone is effectively part-time so it is a really good discipline to get into.”

Avoid paid imprisonment – flexible working trends are hitting an office near you