Embrace flexible working on everybody's terms

It’s been interesting reading about the fears of some employers in the face of the extension of the right to request flexible working beyond the previous categories of parents and carers.

The rise in zero-hours, part-time working and other atypical contracts suggest that employers welcome flexibility, so long as they instigate the arrangements and they are on their terms.

It seems to be a much scarier scenario to open up the possibility of employees as a whole having the right to request flexibility, even though there is no compulsion to grant it.

Over the years, I’ve made the right to request flexibility open toall staff. In my experience, there has been no deluge of people wanting to take advantage of it and, moreover, I don’t believe it has had any negative impact on business.

Rather, I have found that being as flexible as we can has enabled us to retain some high performers who, if we had dug our heels in about wanting them on a nine to five pattern, would have easily been able to jack in their jobs with us and make career changes that would more easily accommodate their lifestyle changes. The majority of staff who do request it are maternity returners.

Because we operate a consistent performance management system based on objectives, we have no worry that somebody working part-time, or part or most of the week at home, is more likely to be watching daytime television or attending to the kids than doing their work. 

The reality is that it is almost always the case that part-timers and other flexible workers end up putting in way more than their contracted hours at times of peak workload demand.

The other thing that I have always been keen on is offering the most generous flexitime provision that we can in terms of start and finish times and staff being able to take back time worked in lieu.

Although this has meant that we have not gained financially, as many organisations do, from some staff putting in lots of unpaid overtime, the benefits have been immense in terms of retention, goodwill, and building trusting relationships.

As a charity operating in a tough contracting environment, we cannot afford to pay the best wages, but our most popular benefit by far has been the flexitime scheme. It enables people to juggle the increasingly complex pressures that we deal with in our day-to-day lives, without having to worry that working hours just won’t allow for this. 

It is, therefore, great for reducing stress and stopping people feeling they need to feign sickness in order to deal with stuff that life throws up. I was disappointed to learn from our remuneration consultants recently that formal flexitime schemes have reduced in popularity amongst employers over the past ten years whereas their work with focus groups indicates that it is one of the most valued benefits for staff. This is a real step backwards.

Ultimately, there is, of course, a correlation between the reluctance of many employers to embrace flexibility and the glass ceiling for women. In the sector in which I work - social housing - women are far better represented at senior levels than is reported as being the case in the wider world and, although it’s not perfect, this is a sector that has generally been enlightened and ahead of the game in terms of workplace flexibility.

In my experience, facilitating flexible working patterns makes a major contribution to many of the big HR issues that organisations grapple with: recruitment, retention, reward, engagement. As such it is to be embraced with open arms, not feared.

Helen Giles is HR director of St Mungo’s Broadway and managing director of Broadway’s Real People, a social enterprise HR consultancy.