Six steps to getting flexible working right

Few organisations would claim they are always getting flexible working right, but the ones HR magazine approached are ahead of the curve. As the right to request flexible working now applies to all employees in the UK, here are six steps to creating a successful flexible working environment.

Dana Denis-Smith, the founder and CEO of legal services provider Obelisk, likens flexible working to any a relationship: “You have to work on it, a bit like a marriage,” she points out.

Denis-Smith should know. She founded and runs a business that is purely based on supplying flexible workers in legal support. She says trust is an important aspect and management needs to focus on “what you need to do, rather than have you done seven hours of face time”.

“I’m not interested in seeing an employee work, I want to see the outcomes and how it worked for clients. It’s important to leave your workers to get on with it,” Denis-Smith says.

But there are plenty of other factors that help deliver success. HR magazine spoke to flexible working experts who agree on six areas that organisations need to get right: 

1. Create a business case

Law firm Norton Rose Fulbright has allowed all staff the right to request flexible working for several years. Employees begin the process by approaching a line manager or HR business partner and submitting a request.

“The trick is making sure the application has been properly thought through, such as the impact on the team, the impact on client coverage and how the work is going to get done,” says global director of people and development Andrew McEachern.

For EY’s deputy COO Lynn Rattigan, a critical part is to have a proper business conversation to establish whether or not a flexible arrangement is going to be appropriate.

“A business conversation is at the heart of this because it gives people permission to ask and you don’t feel like you are asking for a favour. It also gives managers the ability to consider it in the same way they would any other business proposition,” says Rattigan, who began working part time five years ago to raise her twin daughters. 

2. Set boundaries, communicate clearly

Rattigan, who works four days a week, says it is important to set clear boundaries on when you will be at work and at home.

“In the early days I felt incredibly guilty about not being there on a Wednesday and that was unhelpful, because I shouldn’t have to feel guilty, but it’s also really unhelpful to my stakeholders because they weren’t sure whether I was around or not. It confuses people,” she says.

While Rattigan is not office-bound, she checks her Blackberry a few times on her day off just in case she has any urgent messages that need attention. She also has regular communication with her team, including what tasks are expected of them in a given period and when she is in or out.

This resonates with Lloyd’s chief economist Patrick Foley, who works on average three days a week: “I make sure I keep my boss, the FD, fully informed of when I am in the office or not. We don’t meet on a daily basis but it is helpful for him to know the dates I am around,” 

3. Remember the ‘flexible’ in flexibility

McEachern’s firm takes the view that flexibility needs to go both ways.

“Where somebody is very rigid and, for example, says: ‘I am going to have to leave the office at this time to pick up my child from nursery’ and doesn’t offer any flexibility later on in the evening if there is a transactional matter that needs to be dealt with, that can be problematic,” he says.

All leaders suggested that there were occasions when they would have to come in more on busier weeks and less of quieter ones. “You need to be prepared to give and take and attend meetings, prepared to do the travel or work on designated days off,” Oxford Instruments HR director Claire Flint points out.

Foley adds: “If there is a lot of stuff going on in the office and I need to attend five days I will, but if I have commitments outside of the office and it’s a bit quieter, I might be here one or two days. I make sure everybody knows when I am going to be here several weeks in advance. Good communication is absolutely vital.” 

4. Focus on outputs, not inputs

Paying less attention to the clock and looking at outcomes are fundamental principles of managing staff that work remotely.

A challenge for many businesses is that a lot of managers focus on an inputs-based model of performance, placing too much onus on the perceived effort or number of hours being worked.

In certain situations, such as customer- facing shift work, this may make sense, but in many environments it doesn’t.

“You don’t have to be at your desk to put hours in and it’s an old-fashioned view of the world: unless you were in the office you aren’t working,” says McEachern. “That just isn’t true in today’s age with technology and the ability to do work remotely. It should be about outputs and not inputs.”

Part of this requires placing trust in your staff. “You then need to stand back and trust the person that they’ll deliver,” says Working Families CEO Sarah Jackson.

Timewise founder Karen Mattison believes companies could do more to help managers “get comfortable with trust in that way”.

5. Get the culture right

Rattigan says EY has a “collaborative and open culture” that is conducive to a flexible-working regime. This gave her the confidence to have an honest conversation with her employers to make the request.

“Diligence and engagement early on about how things will work in practice really help that conversation,” she says. The firm also has flexible working role models.

“This makes it something that is much more the norm and accepted rather than something going on under the radar that not many people have,” she adds.

Kathryn Nawrockyi, director of Business in the Community’s gender equality campaign Opportunity Now, says that role models, men and women at all levels, are vital to changing the culture.

Jackson says she isn’t sure which aspect should come first, cultural change or different performance management, but adds: “The culture change we seek is absolutely dependent on us all trying to get better at performance management.

“If you see some of the companies who do this well, their cultures are enormously empowering and they can measure that empowerment through their business returns and the service they provide for their clients.”  

6. Train your managers

As has been repeated in this report, managing flexible working requires a different mindset to traditional management approaches and training is one area that many companies may need to consider.

A recent Commission on the Future of Management and Leadership study, Management 2020: Leadership to unlock long-term growth, found that 71% of leaders admitted they either don’t train first-time managers or could do better training them. This means up to 150,000 employees take on management roles without training every year.

Norton Rose Fulbright and EY both offer staff training on flexible working management.

Getting flexible working right may sound like a daunting challenge, and experts agree it doesn't always run smoothly. But in an era where more businesses and staff require flexible working patterns, the benefits of a flexible approach far outweigh any short-term pain.