· Comment

Flexible working: what HR needs to know to make it work

When it comes to flexible working– do you update your existing flexible working policies to incorporate new ways of working or do you provide guidelines rather than rules?


Policies or guidelines?

It really depends on both the kind of organisation you are and what kind of flexibility you want. If, for example you decide to go down a very structured route with ratios of office: home working days and you are also an organisation that lives by the rules and policies, then re-writing your flexible working policies would seem like the best option.

On the other hand, if you want to be more informal and varied in your flexible or hybrid working approach, then it's best not to issue strict rules and policies. Instead, I would suggest you provide a framework of guidance that enables your people managers to follow a consistent approach - this will result in lots of different types of flexibility to suit individual and team needs while providing the parameters to ensure fairness.

But whether you want to make it formal or informal, you will still need some rules of the road to make it successful. For example – meeting etiquette. You will need to have some ground rules in place to make these effective, such as a “one remote, all remote” rule, all meetings being hybrid, or specifying that certain meetings must be face to face. For what it’s worth my personal view is that hybrid meetings are rarely as effective as either all remote or all in person.

How others are approaching flexible work:

Back to life, back to (a new) reality: the workplace after furlough

Home truths: adapting to the new world of work

Coronavirus has highlighted missing piece in flexible working jigsaw


Hybrid working is not flexible working

With all the talk about hybrid working it’s easy to forget that this is just one element of flexibility – where people can work. For true flexibility to happen you also need to consider the when and how. And now is a great time to do that as part of your flexible working strategy.

When not only includes part-time or reduced hours but also enables more freedom for people to work at times that best suit them during the course of the day or week. Some organisations are introducing core hours of availability between 10-3 to have a time in the day when you know you are working synchronously, others are giving employees the choice to flex their hours between say 7am and 7pm to suit individual needs.

However you choose to look at the when the key factor in making it work is transparency and communication – ensuring that everyone is open about when they are working and utilising technologies such as Teams, Slack, or calendars to update daily or weekly working patterns.

The most difficult part in flexible working is the how and it’s often the part we overlook. It’s why you hear of part-timers effectively doing a full-time role in part-time hours. The how looks at everything from the responsibilities of the role to the way in which teams work together and how work is distributed and managed. This means it can be the biggest hurdle to overcome because you not only need to look at your processes and systems, but also at your leadership and management practices and ultimately your organisational culture.

But don’t get disheartened. The good news is that pandemic working life has forced a lot of changes to the way we work now. The key is to take the positives from the last year and use that momentum to drive changes moving forward. Equipping your managers to have an outcomes-based mindset is the first step in the journey because from that you can consider job roles and responsibilities, when teams need to get together and how projects will be managed for example.


What are you measuring?

As with all change programmes, you will want and need to be able to measure the success of flexible working in 12 months from now (and beyond) as it will be a topic that is consistently revisited – have we seen the productivity gains? What has the impact been on the bottom line?

To measure the success of flexible working, you first need to determine what your drivers are – what are you aiming to achieve by introducing more flexibility? It could be talent attraction and retention, engagement, reduced office and travel costs, employee wellbeing, diversity, and inclusion amongst others.

Once you have determined your aims, you need to create a baseline datapoint which can be tricky – do you measure now after the way we’ve been working in the last year? Or do you start from pre-pandemic data? It could be a combination of both depending on what you are measuring, just make sure you are clear on your starting points.

There are direct and indirect measures for you to consider. Employee surveys asking specifically about ways of working, analysing the number formal flexible working requests, and how well the new ways of working have been adopted across teams are all good direct measures. Indirect measures could include data on candidate attraction, broader employee engagement surveys, productivity, and profitability measures.


People managers are the key to success

As with many things, the main factor in whether your flexible working policy will be successful or not is in how your managers and leaders implement it.

Managers will need to be able to balance the needs of individuals with the needs of the team and the wider organisation, and that means we need to equip managers with the skills to be able to successfully navigate through the change including communications skills and creating outcome-based mindsets.

Managers will become the gatekeepers for flexibility and with that also comes the responsibility for fairness. How will the policy be applied fairly across different teams? There is no one size fits all for hybrid or flexible working and what works for one team will not work for another which is why having a clear and consistent approach in how decisions are made is vital to achieve fairness.


Listen to and trust your employees

It’s easy to make assumptions about how people want to be working going forward – what if no-one wants to come back to the office? What if everyone wants to come back to the office? The truth is that trend seems to be that the vast majority of people want a combination of home and office working going forward with a few people on either extreme of being fully remote or being based in the office.

Trust your employees to be involved in the process of rolling out your new policies – they are the people who are invested in making it work. And in my experience so far are very pragmatic about solutions that will work for them personally and the business as a whole.


Nicola Pease is founder and flexible working consultant at Ignite Consulting