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Flexible working: the best of the bunch

Increasing numbers of employees are requesting flexible working. But which organisations have the right policies and procedures in place to be truly flexible?

0n 30 June the extension of the right to request flexible working legislation celebrated its first birthday. But when it comes to true cultural change around flexibility and work/life balance, how far do we still have to go? Recent research from flexibility expert and specialist jobs board Timewise suggests quite a long way; it found only 6% of jobs advertised in the UK mention flexible working.

But despite this there are beacons of good practice to inspire HR professionals looking to embed a more flexible approach in their organisations, exemplified by the winners of the Top Employers for Working Families.

The awards, for which HR magazine is sole media partner, celebrate those organisations that support the work/life balance of all staff, not merely through HR policies but via sustained cultural change.

Over the next few pages, we reveal some of the most innovative and inspiring trends in flexible working, and take a look inside some of this year’s winning companies…

Public sector gets innovative

With three public sector organisations walking off with top awards (Cafcass, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Justice), the sector is pushing the boundaries around what is possible when it comes to flexible working.

Examples of innovation include the Ministry of Justice’s commuter hubs, which give staff an option halfway between commuting and working from home, and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s Project Task Force, which allows employees to work flexibly across a variety of critical projects.

Working Families CEO Sarah Jackson believes the rise in flexible working innovation in the public sector is partly down to dealing with ongoing austerity.

“There always has to be a burning platform,” she says. “Clearly the public sector is having to learn to work in a different way thanks to budget constraints. Organisations have to be careful that in the process of making cuts they keep morale and engagement up. Looking at ways of working is a way of taking people with you. It’s encouraging to see that public sector leaders are thinking creatively.

Using technology to enhance flexibility

“Companies are continually looking at how they can use technology to create more flexibility,” says D&I expert and judge Charlotte Sweeney. “This is increasingly important when we consider the different generations in the workplace and how they like to connect with work when not physically in the office.”

Take finalist Barclays’ ‘Staying in Touch’ app, which keeps line managers and maternity leavers in contact during the maternity leave period, and also provides access to relevant resources and information. Or the UK Civil Services simple yet effective online portal to connect those employees who want to explore job sharing options.

“We are seeing three different strands in tackling the work/life balance conundrum,” says Jackson. “The first is giving people autonomy, the second is using technology better to support work/life balance, and the third is making smarter use of your organisation’s premises and infrastructure.”

Line managers: Barriers or enablers?

The role of line management in embedding a culture of work flexibility is critical, but organisational support remains patchy. Suzan Lewis, one of the awards judges and professor of organisational psychology at Middlesex University Business School, advocates communicating the business case for flexible working clearly, and providing evidence that it benefits everyone.

Good practice examples include award winners iCrossing, where all line managers are trained in managing flexible working, and finalist Wales and West Housing, which develops managers to have ‘effective conversations’ around flexible working.

Going forward Lewis says she would like to see “evidence that managers, as the main supporters of, or barriers, to culture change, are really being pushed to support their employees’ requests for flexibility using a carrot and stick approach”. “It would be good to have evidence in appraisals of not only how many requests for flexible working are granted but also how many are refused and for what specific reasons,” she adds. “The reasons should be a basis for discussion and learning.”

In addition, Jackson would like to see managers having two consecutive budgets to look after: “A time budget and a money one.” 

Making flexibility stick

How do you make sure that your HR policies are really being reflected in your culture? It’s a challenge most organisations face when it comes to flexible working and work/life balance.

And in this space it means making flexibility part of ‘business as usual’, rather than something that only applies to women with children. But, as Sweeney puts it: “The cultural change required for flexibility is far harder to deliver than introducing a new tool. It has to be the key focus for the future.”

One of the winners that has truly embedded flexibility was Cafcass, which embraced flexible working as part of an overall cultural transformation. It invested in the tools needed to allow staff to structure their time around work, family and personal commitments, but beyond that tied the change to its purpose as an organisation, clearly demonstrating how increased flexibility helped it to deliver better support to vulnerable children.

In moving the flexible working agenda forward Jackson says that business as a whole needs to address the “big questions” around how jobs and work in general are designed. “Flexible working doesn’t address the fundamental problem that jobs are too big and people work too hard,” she believes. 

To tackle this she advocates more organisations explore the potential of job sharing.  But going forward, she calls on organisations to be brave in tackling the bigger topic of job and work design. “No one is brave enough to look at the way we design work and the impact that has,” she says.

The winners

Best for Innovation award – Deloitte (joint winner)