It’s just over six months since new legislation came in which entitles all employees to request flexible working. The aim was to level the playing field so employees did not feel parents and carers were getting special treatment and to create a more flexible working culture.
But how has the legislation gone down so far? Ruth Renton from Artington Legal says about half of employers she sees have noticed an increase in people applying for flexible working since the new legislation came in at the end of June.
From anecdotal evidence and surveys, it seems that most employers have coped with the changes. Many of the most progressive employers already offered flexible working to all employees in any event. However, some employers appear to be struggling. A survey of over 400 employers by Workingmums.co.uk found that 11% would be more cautious in granting flexible working as a result of the extension. Some 53% said they would grant it on a case by case basis despite 30% saying managers find it hard to manage multiple requests.
Despite some challenges, most saw flexible working as a benefit for employers. Some 58% of employers thought flexible working improved retention, with only 9% saying it didn’t. Only 3% thought it made workers less efficient with 36% saying staff who work flexibly are more efficient. The biggest benefit of flexible working was retention of staff, particularly women returning from maternity leave. However, there while 25% said they faced no challenges in implementing flexible working, for those who did the biggest barriers were that their business or their clients demanded set hours.
Some employers have addressed such concerns by being very clear about their flexible culture from the offset. HR firm Reality HR, for example, adopts a dual-pronged approach to flexible recruitment. Not only does everyone at the firm work flexibly, many doing different work patterns and all logged on a shared schedule so cover is always provided, but it also promotes flexible working externally to its clients, educating them about the benefits in attracting a more diverse talent pool.
Consultancy firm AT Kearney has won awards for its Success with Flex initiative which allows for flexible working and alternative career patterns, for instance, consultants can move to non-consultant roles or work on internal projects for a period. The firm is open from the start of the recruitment process that it has a flexible working programme and that everyone can apply. This is mentioned on its website, in its recruitment presentations and in campus recruitment sessions.
Both these employers have changed their work culture to accommodate more flexible ways of working and see a strong business case for doing so in terms of employee commitment and retention as well as productivity.
But some clearly struggle, particularly with multiple requests for flexible working. Ruth Renton says she believes there is not enough clarity on what employers should do if they received multiple applications for flexible working. Currently they tend to accept flexible working requests in favour of employees with additional protections, such as working mums, she says, but that may continue resentment towards such members of staff, which is in part what the legislation was designed to counter.
Andy Lake, editor of Flexibility.co.uk, calls the ad hoc approach to flexible working “inflexible flexibility” and speaks about the need to put in the work to establish a flexible culture rather than just dealing with cases on an as they come basis.
Gillian Nissim, founder of Workingmums.co.uk, says it is important to give employers support by sharing best practice over what those who have established flexible cultures have done. One employer which has done so is IT firm Hireserve. “Flexible working should be part of the very soul of a company,” says director Karen Ovenden.
The company’s flexible approach begins with recruitment. At interviews, Karen always says to candidates that she knows their personal life is the most important thing in their world. She says: “Work clearly has to be a close second so there is no detriment to our business, but the benefit is that people who work for us know it is their whole being that matters.”
Working in this way means planning ahead in terms of staffing and skills. “I am always thinking about what the business requirements are and might be,” says Karen. “For instance, if we hire a part-time person would they be able to increase their hours if their role grows. We sit down and think about what we are looking for in the long term.” All this is done through open consultation with staff and a discussion about what works best in terms of adding value to the business and getting the right people for the job.
“A company can only be successful if it has people at the core,” says Karen.