Growing a flexible business

By J&C Team

How do you grow a flexible start-up into a flexible middle-sized SME without losing something of the work culture that allowed the business to grow and prosper in the first place?

It’s a big problem for start-ups who totally grasp the benefits of flexible working, but as they grow are forced to develop policies which rigidify ad hoc practices based on trust between employers and staff.

This year for the first time an SME was overall winner of Top Employer Awards. Macmillan Williams Solicitors is not only unusual because it is an SME, but, like several of this year’s winners, it operates in a male-dominated sector and one that is renowned for its long hours culture. Although it is already a larger SME, it has so far resisted having any written flexible working policy. However, that is about to change due to external pressures.

In the process of expanding, how will it keep hold of a culture which was praised for the comprehensive range of support it offered, its record on female career progression and for the inspiration it offered others in the legal sector and beyond?

It was something several smaller organisations at the ceremony wanted to know. Wendy Hallett, Founder and MD of Hallett Retail and a member of the Women’s Business Council, was keynote speaker and told how she had built her business up to a position where it now employers 450 people. She started it in part because she couldn’t find a part-time job at her level of experience after being made redundant so flexibility was a key founding principle.  “It has become a significant business, but it was not planned that way,” she said. “I just wanted flexible work while I was bringing up my children.” Wendy described how her personal experiences had given her “an absolute passion for supporting women in my own business and in the wider community”.

She said she had tried to practise what she preached and had had to push through some flexible working initiatives amid scepticism from other managers. Her company allows all workers to request flexible working, but stipulates that it is the responsibility of both employee and employer to make any arrangement agreed work. Being clear about what was expected was vital, said Wendy. The company offers flexible working, including homeworking and stretch days, and people can buy additional holidays. Most internal meetings are reserved for Mondays and Tuesdays, mainly in the middle period of the day, she added. This made business sense because meetings were more effective and staff more engaged if they were not rushing first thing in the morning or tired last thing in the afternoon.

Wendy also spoke about how she feels it is important for her to be a strong role model for flexible working. She has never apologised for working flexibly and continues to have Fridays off, even though her children were now 17 and 20. She argued strongly for SMEs not to lose sight of family friendly working once they expanded. “If you are passionate about it hang on to the bit that makes it work,” she said.

Andy Lake, one of the Award judges and editor of, said smaller SMEs had a lot to teach larger organisations about flexible working and echoed the view that it was important to keep things flexible and as virtual as possible as businesses grew. He said many organisations were still adopting a reactive approach to flexible working based on individual applications and then worrying when they couldn’t get it all to work. They were missing a strategic approach which created an overall agile work culture and were stuck in what he called “inflexible flexibility”. Many also had flexible working policies which were nearly always framed negatively.

Karen Ovenden, a partner at IT firm Hireserve, which won an award for smaller SMEs, cautioned that rigid policies could “strangle innovation”. Macmillan Williams Solicitors was clear that if it had to have a written policy on flexible working it needed to be holistic enough to embrace different needs and adaptable enough not to impose a one size fits all approach.

Maya Middlemiss of market research company Saros Research, which was shortlisted for an Award, highlighted how a strong flexible culture went hand in hand with giving line managers discretion to create ad-hoc flexibility agreements to suit the needs of individual colleagues and she said this could only be good for business. “I strongly believe that giving managers the discretion to manage their own team’s needs is a core element both to management-by-results and building team loyalty and commitment,” she said.