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HR must do more to prove the business case for flexible working

Lack of senior buy-in, role modelling from the top, and line management skill are barriers to successful implementation

Flexibility and family-friendly working are still not part of the wider business strategy for many, according to research seen exclusively by HR magazine.

The annual Top Employers for Working Families benchmark is a management tool; it also provides a top 30 employers ranking. While all those surveyed in 2017 included flexibility in strategic plans, this was primarily in H&W (77%), employee relations (74%), or IT strategy (79%). It was recognised in some financial (47%) and marketing (38%) strategies, but at a lower level and more informally.

A related obstacle is presenting a strong business case. Fewer than half (45%) of organisations could quantify the effect flexible working had on their organisation. Only 30% had been able to calculate the financial benefits, and only 45% the real estate benefits.

Ann Pickering, HR director at O2, urged HR to do more on proving this business case. “Flexibility is a vital business tool that can create a fast and responsive workforce, and not just a box-ticking exercise,” she told HR magazine. “The results speak for themselves; the Institute of Leadership and Management found that 84% of managers who have implemented flexible working schedules in the UK saw improvements in productivity, commitment and staff retention.”

Fiona Cannon, group director of responsible business and inclusion at Lloyds Banking Group, said that flexible working enables a more comprehensive service. “Customers want a 24-hour service and by implementing practices like job sharing, working from home, and varied shift patterns we are able to better respond to customers’ needs while delivering the work/life balance that colleagues want and deserve,” she said. “The positive effects also extend to better employee decision-making, increased engagement and boosted productivity.”

Jonathan Swan, head of research for Working Families, agreed on the business benefits. But he warned that informal flexible working arrangements can make data difficult to obtain. “It could be very concrete in terms of your property management, for example,” he said. “But if your interest is in an area such as productivity it can be harder to collect the data there.”

A strong business case can help ensure senior buy-in – a crucial factor, according to Maggie Stilwell, managing partner for talent at EY UK and Ireland. “At EY flexible working has become the way we do business; we regard it as a commercial imperative that helps us prepare for the future. Setting the tone from the top is key, particularly with visible role models,” she said.

However, half (51%) of those polled cited lack of line management skill and knowledge as their biggest barrier – an increase on previous years.

But Working Families said it was encouraged by greater awareness of the crucial role of the line manager.

Suzanne Christopher, senior HR manager of staff engagement at Imperial College London, said her organisation is looking at new ways to help engage managers with flexible working. “We are currently setting up an ‘agile working group’ to help both staff and managers proactively look at extending flexible working,” she said. “Alongside this we are setting up a Web page on agile working, with useful resources so that managers can support staff further so that they remain engaged and high performing.”

“Ultimately, we can’t just do business – we have to do good business,” added Pickering. “That means cultivating a workforce that is both happy and productive in equal measure. When our people love what they do, and feel empowered to do their job in a way that works best for them, they’ll love doing it for our customers as well.”

The benchmark report is being launched by Working Families to mark National Work Life Week (2 – 6 October) Visit: www.workingfamilies.org.uk/employers/national-work...