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Why aren't we hiring flexibly?

Demand for flexible working is on the rise but flexible job adverts are few and far between

“It was disheartening because you think ‘what am I supposed to do? Does that mean I can never move jobs?’” That’s not how any HR director wants to make a potential candidate feel. And yet there’s a very high chance your hiring processes are doing just that.

The candidate quoted was a marketing manager looking for a new role. The catch? It needed to be flexible. And while Emma has since been lucky enough to find her dream job, there are many people searching for their next opportunity and feeling trapped by their need for flexibility.

“We are bad at recruiting, that’s where the challenge is,” says Karen Mattison, co-founder and joint CEO of Timewise, a flexible jobs board. “That’s how people get trapped, which is the problem at the heart of flexible working. If you have flexible working without flexible hiring you are creating this bottleneck.”

Research by Timewise proves flexible hiring is the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to taking flexible working mainstream. According to the Timewise Flexible Job Index 2016, only 8.7% of jobs paying more than £20,000 are advertised with flexible working options. Among lower-paid roles the figure is 20.2%, echoing findings from various studies that there’s a correlation between low paid work and flexibility. And often it is women and minorities being locked out of the job market.

The overarching issue is that “flexible working is still seen as a privilege”, says Sarah Jackson, CEO of Working Families. “Legislation and research says flexibility is given to someone who has earned their stripes,” agrees Mattison. The Right to Request Flexible Working legislation reinforces this, as employees without 26 weeks’ service do not have a statutory right to request flexible working.

“Part of the problem is we work so hard and so fast, so if someone leaves the easy thing to do is to replace what you’ve lost with the same thing,” says Jackson. “If they worked nine to five you find that again so you don’t have to put any thought into it. Flexible hiring requires you to press a pause button and say: could we do this better? Could we rethink this role?” Often the answer will be yes, she adds, citing Working Families research where the charity called recruiters offering full-time jobs, only to find most of them could be done flexibly.

According to Amanda Fone, founder and CEO of F1 Recruitment, who has long campaigned for more flexible approaches to work, there are three common excuses she hears from hiring managers when she suggests they open a role up to flexibility. “‘The FD has signed off a five day a week role, and we don’t want to lose the budget’; ‘They will be running a team and they need to be in the office to coach and influence’; ‘It’s a client-facing role and the client wants to be able to get hold of them at any time.’” But, she adds, “all of those three reasons you can find a solution for if you really want to”.

And given that further Timewise research found nine in 10 managers say they would be open to flexibility for the right candidate, there appears to be a gulf between what companies say they want, and what they would accept. In short, most people are a lot more open and flexible than job adverts suggest. “Hiring managers find it difficult when flexibility is talked about in the abstract,” says Mattison. “They would be open to flexibility for the right candidate, but they don’t get it in the abstract and so don’t mention it. But that’s the problem for the candidate: do you apply? When do you mention [you need to work flexibly]?”

“It’s about being really clear what flexibility means in the context of the job,” adds Jackson. “Is it suitable for job share? Compressed hours? Working from home? Create a clear picture for yourself and potential applicants about what it looks like. It’s about getting it sorted before the person starts so they have the tools to be successful.”

Flexible hiring then needs to be made much more deliberate. This is the thinking behind Timewise’s Hire Me My Way campaign, which asks employers to commit to discussing flexible working during the hiring process. Working Families’ ‘Happy to talk flexible working’ strapline for job ads has a similar aim. However, this needs to go beyond slapping a logo on a website, says Mattison: “It’s about articulating your approach to flexible hiring.” Jackson agrees, adding: “You have to watch out that people don’t rush into it, stick a logo everywhere and then say: ‘Oh no, we didn’t mean that…’”

Flexible hiring has to be one piece of a wider culture change then, rather than organisations jumping on the bandwagon when they don’t have the embedded approach to flexibility to deliver their promises. “It’s difficult if you don’t have the wider culture change,” says Emma Codd, managing partner for talent at Deloitte, a flag bearer for what it refers to as ‘agile working’, and a participant in Timewise’s campaign. “If you say ‘we are open to discussing it’ you need to be really open to discussing it. It’s about recognising this as a business imperative. We want the best people, so why wouldn’t we hire in a flexible way?”

Another organisation signed up to the Hire Me My Way campaign is food manufacturer Kellogg’s. While the company has an embedded culture of flexible working, European talent and diversity director Ben Lamont says he realised “what would often happen is, when we did grant flexible working it tended to be when someone was already working here”. “Rarely did it happen, or did we ask the question, at the point of hire,” he adds. “We decided to embrace it and start talking about it more at point of hire. It helps us add a lot more consistency, and it encourages the discussion to happen more formally, which can only be a good thing.”

While Kellogg’s has only been deliberately offering flexible hiring since May this year, Lamont hopes it will help the company reach a broader, more diverse audience. “We are trying to help hiring managers understand that flexibility doesn’t mean less productivity or even less time,” he says. “We are telling hiring managers not to rule it out until they’ve had the conversation.”

At Virgin Money job adverts offer to match a candidate’s current flexible working arrangement (if appropriate for the role) in the same way they would match salary. “If someone wants to move jobs they might not if they have flexible working,” says people director Matt Elliott. “The obvious way to remove that barrier is to say ‘we will match it and look to honour what you are currently working.’”

The bank has already hired four people on this basis in the few months it has been advertising its jobs this way. “It gives people confidence they can at least talk to us about [flexibility],” adds Elliott.

This confidence piece is critical, points out Jo Brown, assistant director of HR and OD at Camden Council: “When you’re going for a new job it’s that fear factor – you don’t want to say you have a family or other commitments.” So Camden Council has turned things around by putting the onus on the organisation rather than the individual. “Now all our jobs say it’s up to us to prove it wouldn’t work,” says Brown. “The assumption is it will work, rather than for the employee to prove it will.”

Brown says about 30% of prospective staff are now mentioning they are interested in exploring flexible working at interview, up from 20%. “Giving people that confidence early on is refreshing and we are likely to get a greater diversity of candidates,” she adds. “We want to have access to as wide a group as we can and offering jobs on a flexible basis is a massive part of that.”

Putting the onus on the organisation is a critical part of making this work, says Jackson, and the impetus is on the HR director to change systems. “Someone, usually the head of HR or recruitment, needs to say ‘we are not going to let any job advert go out saying ‘full time’ unless the hiring manager can prove why’. Reverse it. A lot of systems have a ‘tick for flexible working’ box, so why not make it ‘tick for full time’?” she asks.

If HR gets pushback from the hiring manager – because as Brown says: “there are always pockets of people convinced it won’t work for their job” – look for examples of where it has worked in the organisation. “That ability to show rather than tell is really impactful,” she advises.

“The HRD has a pivotal role,” agrees Mattison. “There’s such an important education piece to take the fear out and share stories of when it works. There’s a worry the floodgates will open and you’ll be overrun with people wanting to work 20 minutes a day. That does not happen. HR is in the unique position of understanding the business and the candidate and can broker the conversation.”

“The role of HR is to champion and enable different approaches and perspectives about how work is done,” adds Lamont. “We need to be challenging the business and providing thought leadership on how this adds value to the organisation.” Speaking of the value this can contribute, all the HR directors HR magazine spoke to cited increased diversity as an immediate win, with many also mentioning higher levels of engagement and productivity.

Fone of F1 Recruitment feels recruitment agencies also have a role to play here, in pushing their clients to consider flexible working for new hires. Of the 15 or so roles her company takes on every week she says it’s “highly unlikely” any will be positioned as flexible. “Normally we say ‘this is the job you need doing, these are the skills you need. If you have someone who wouldn’t be in five days a week why not consider them?’ That opens up the conversation.”

And as Mattison points out, introducing flexible hiring “doesn’t tie you”. “You still offer the role to the best candidate, it just opens you up for more diversity. Want more women or more diverse groups? Try flexible hiring. There are lots of business issues it can fix.”

“Most businesses spend lots of time and effort trying to find out what their customers want from products, but when you are selling a job you don’t think about asking applicants what they want, you just say ‘take it or leave it’,” says Jackson. “Why do we do that?” It’s a compelling question HRDs will need to address, and soon, if they want to access the best, broadest talent.