Lessons on flexible working from the Working Families conference

Speakers at Working Families’ National Work Life Week Conference 2018 shared best practice for changing organisational culture to be family-friendly and flexible

Policies and procedures can only go so far to creating flexible, family-friendly workplaces – it is culture that is key, said speakers at Working Families’ National Work Life Week Conference 2018.

Here are some of the tips speakers shared for driving this cultural change:

Flexible doesn’t have to mean formal

There was some debate among speakers and attendees around whether flexible working should be a formal or informal agreement in an organisation. For Annette Andrews, HR director at insurance firm Lloyd’s, if the culture is truly flexible and family-friendly there is no need for formal arrangements. “I’m a great supporter of informal working arrangements. I don’t think we need formal arrangements unless there is a reduction in hours and as long as it works fine for the team,” she said.

Andrews told attendees that formalising and putting flexible working into writing risks the focus being on counting the numbers rather than on the culture. “How do we switch from where we track people working flexibly to where they completely work flexibly?” she asked. “We need to support the cultural shift… I worry that if we count too much what individual arrangements people have then things will be too restrictive.” At Lloyd’s this has meant giving managers the flexibility to make informal arrangements with their reports rather than needing HR to step in.

Simon Harper, assistant chief of staff personnel policy at the RAF, said that while around 1% of RAF staff have formal flexible working arrangements, “a significant minority more are on informal arrangements”.

It shouldn’t only apply to childcare

Flexible working should extend beyond family responsibilities, said chief operating officer of Independent Living Scotland Harvey Tilley. “We don’t talk about family-friendly we talk about life-friendly, as we all have different stages in our life,” he explained, adding that personalising flexible working to individuals’ circumstances can range from maternity leave to caring for parents to pet leave.

Una O’Reilly, group director of engagement and employer brand, director of HR UK and Italy, at Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, described a similar approach at the retail and construction firm, where every employee is given a family day to use for anything that matters to them. “It’s an additional day to annual leave to encourage people to take time for their families,” she said. “We named it family day to change the culture but family could be whoever they want it to be, we don’t ask people to define what that is.” O’Reilly added that as well as conventional uses like a child’s first day of school, some people may “hang out with their cat”. “We don’t care as long as people take the time to use it,” she said. “This is the cultural change – the openness and transparency that we trust employees to do what they think best.”

Best practice must be led from the top

“If you’re looking to change the culture and conversation around workplace flexibility there is nothing better than having senior leaders involved,” said Nikunj Upadhyay, diversity and inclusion lead at Barclays. She gave the example of Barclays' Dynamic Working campaign, where HR worked with senior leaders to get them to share their own stories of how they work dynamically so that other employees could see flexibility is available to everyone.

The importance of senior buy-in was also highlighted by Andrews who spoke about “finding the carrots”.

“We all have our own story and we’ve got to find that one thing that attracts someone to supporting flexible working… we need to find a way to tell them about flexible working and gradually change the culture,” she said. This has been the basis behind Lloyd’s Dive In Festival, which uses “different carrots in different locations to talk about talent and change behaviour”.

Trust your employees

Having a trusting relationship with employees was also discussed. Lesley Babb, head of pay, reward and diversity at the Intellectual Property Office, called on employers to recognise that “most people want to do a good job” and encouraged a shift from a “parent-child relationship to an adult-adult relationship”. “Our adaptive programme was about getting people to solve their own problems in the organisation,” she said, emphasising the decision to remove core working hours so employees can work anytime between 5am and 10pm. “The reality is that not many have changed their hours but it gives them the flexibility to do so,” Babb added.

Laura Farnsworth, partner and head of Rockhopper at Lewis Silkin, also spoke about trusting employees to choose their own hours. “Rockhopper is not just about working from home but about picking hours, and people can change their hours week on week,” she said. “As long as times are covered by enough people it doesn’t matter who does what.”