Why you should encourage more flexible working

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Legal expert Amanda Jones explains the organisational benefits of alternative work arrangements, and how HR can implement them effectively.

Agile and flexible-working arrangements have long been associated with female employees who wish to combine their work with family commitments. However, the world of work is changing and employers that broaden their approach to flexible working stand to reap the rewards in terms of productivity, retention and recruitment.

Even though women continue to shoulder the majority of childcare and other family responsibilities, employees of all genders are increasingly choosing to work flexibly for all kinds of reasons. In particular, members of the millennial generation – who are typically far more concerned with work-life balance than previous generations – are increasingly opting out of a traditional 9-5 routine, and are attracted to ways of working that give them flexibility. Organisations that can offer flexible working are likely to be employers of choice. 

As the persistent gender pay gap and lack of board gender diversity stubbornly attests, limiting flexible working to those with family commitments is in some ways counter-productive. Instead, by genuinely embracing agile and flexible working for all, employers can reduce the focus on working mothers and enjoy a number of significant commercial benefits at the same time.

Recent research suggests most men are currently reluctant to request alternative working arrangements because they fear it will harm their career progression. But if employers make it clear that they welcome applications from all staff, they will be more able to foster a culture where flexible working is for everyone.

Altering perceptions

Among the benefits will be a slow shift in perceptions (and the reality) that senior roles are not occupied by those who work flexibly – a key contributing factor to the gender pay gap.

HR issues can arise where staff who would like to work flexibly feel they are unable to do so because priority is given to those with childcare commitments. Opening out such a policy to all employees can help deal with any conflicts that might be caused by competing demands.

Rolling out the option to work flexibly can also help reduce attrition rates and their associated costs, because staff who decide they need to change their balance of work and other interests and commitments will be able to do so without leaving the organisation. At our firm, a senior solicitor works part time, and only during term time, to accommodate childcare commitments, while an associate works 4.5 days per week to spend more time riding her horse.

As the nature of work changes, it is more important to focus on outputs rather than the number of hours staff spend at work. Introducing a policy to grant flexible-working requests unless there is a sound business imperative that makes the request impossible to facilitate will help management to focus more on outputs than inputs.

One of the most common reasons for refusing flexible-working requests is a concern that employees will take advantage of such arrangements. Experience suggests such a concern is more likely to be indicative of poor management; if it is thought that a member of staff will take advantage, then clearly there is very little trust in the employment relationship in the first instance – a more fundamental issue than one caused by a flexible-working policy.

Amanda Jones is a partner and head of the employment, pensions and immigration practice at Maclay Murray & Spens.

Shared from People Management