Last reviewed 27 May 2020
Flexible working as an employee benefit has grown in stature since the legal entitlement to request flexibility was opened to all employees with 26 weeks’ service in 2014. Prior to this date, employees could only submit a request where the flexibility was related to their childcare or dependant care responsibilities.
Since this eligibility requirement was removed, there has been coverage on the right to request flexible working to play a round of golf or to finish early to go down the local pub. How true these scenarios are, however, will often relate to how open an organisation is to promoting a positive culture around flexible working, or whether it uses the statutory business reasons to decline requests wherever possible. With coronavirus-related social distancing set to be around for some time, flexible working has also become a potential solution to keeping staff safe and secure while working.
Organisations are encouraged to avail themselves of the benefits available through encouraging a positive internal stance to flexible working. These benefits include higher employee engagement, increased employee loyalty and reduced lateness and absenteeism. There may even be a business case for allowing amended working hours where this entitles organisations to meet service needs outside of the traditional 9-5. It is also recognised that staff will experience real benefits, such as having the opportunity to schedule work responsibilities around personal commitments and increased feelings of trust and value from their employer. If staff are having child caring issues as a result of the coronavirus school closures, flexible working can be an effective way of helping them to balance both work and personal commitments.
Where a flexible working request is received and, following the internal review process, it is approved as it is considered to have no detriment on the operations of the business, employers are advised to not regard this as the end of the road for this matter. As the part of your workforce that carries out work flexibly grows, there will be an integral group of employees who carry out work from home, work outside of their manager’s office hours or on different days to other team members. It can be easy to lose touch and focus with this group; after all, the adage of “out of sight, out of mind” can easily affect managers who are pushed for time or busy dealing with issues that they have sight of.
A failure to support flexible workers can have a significant negative impact on this group, from lower levels of performance, to feelings of isolation or loneliness as they become increasingly segregated from their team or department. It can also be detrimental to the workplace culture and the quality of work that is produced within departments. Managers are integral to supporting those who work flexibly to ensure this practice has a positive impact of the worker and the business, and the following considerations can be assessed before, and during, any flexible working arrangements.
Maintaining communication with flexible workers can be tricky where they carry out work from home or attend the office at different times to their manager or colleagues. Before flexible working is approved, managers can agree communication methods with individuals, including the following.
Agreeing a process for sending internal business communications, ie an allocated office ”buddy”, or adding to the email distribution list.
Scheduling regular catch-ups and the methods of holding these, ie over the phone, Skype, or via email.
Ensuring the employee can access the internal notice board or Intranet site remotely.
Arranging formal reviews in advance to ensure the importance of these are communicated.
Confirming meetings will be arranged to allow the flexible worker to attend, whether in person or via conferencing technology, and how the employee will be updated if this is not possible.
How managers communicate with their team is a process that will evolve over time and both parties are likely to need a degree of flexibility, and understanding, to ensure this process is successful. While the methods of communication can be agreed, managers are encouraged to ensure their discussions remain positive and constructive at all times. One simple method to remove the risk of a flexible worker feeling forgotten about is to respond to every communication attempt, even if this is a quick message from the manager explaining that they are in a meeting or otherwise occupied but will be in touch when possible.
Creating a support system
As well as managerial support, most employees create a network of colleagues who provide them with professional support during the working day. A danger of flexible working is that this support network becomes lost due to the differing working arrangements, easily leading to feelings of isolation or segregation.
Employers can help support flexible workers by encouraging the creation of either a formal or informal support system. There are a number of ways employers could do this, including the following.
Peer-to-peer support: where flexible workers are matched with other flexible workers, or a whole group is set up, so they can provide a support group amongthemselves as these workers will usually face the same challenges. Care must be taken, however, to ensure that this group is not solely used as a method of voicing disengagement as this could have the opposite effect to what was intended.
Office ”buddy” system: a flexible worker can be matched with a worker in the office. This system can help provide support by ensuring the flexible worker is kept in touch with the day-to-day workings of the office, from internal announcements to personnel changes.
Senior ”buddy” system: rather than matching a flexible worker with a colleague at the same level, a buddy or mentoring system can be set up with senior members of staff. This provides support to flexible workers by ensuring there is an ”open door” into management for them to ask any questions or raise concerns, while reiterating their importance to the business.
It is easy for a flexible worker to lose touch with their department or feel that they are becoming secluded as the opportunities to interact with their colleagues, on a professional and social level, are reduced. This is often exacerbated by the reality that most flexible working arrangements are in place because the individual has personal commitments or responsibilities that they need to schedule around their working life. Managers can take proactive steps to ensure their flexible workers continue to feel included and part of the workplace culture by doing the following.
Ensuring flexible workers are invited to all work-related social events. Further consideration could be given to involving these workers in the scheduling and planning of these events to encourage their attendance.
Involving flexible workers in workplace initiatives, including inviting them to take part in the consultation and decision-making stages of the process.
Encouraging flexible workers to take part in business incentives and activities.
Celebrating the success and performance of flexible workers within the department and across the business, taking care to ensure the success of all workers is noted and communicated to all.
Carrying out engagement surveys with all workers, including those working flexibly. This encourages honest and open feedback on a range of matters, and ensures managers can review whether further action is needed to increase their levels of engagement.
Although flexible workers have a working arrangement that best suits them, or a workable compromise in some cases, this doesn’t mean that these individuals will not have concerns or complaints about their professional life.
With an office-based worker, they will raise their concerns to their line manager and witness the investigatory steps or action taken to resolve the matter. Flexible workers are often more removed from the internal process and, as a result, can feel that their concerns are being ignored or not taken as seriously as others, leading to further feelings that they are displaced from the organisation or not seen as an important member of staff.
To support those flexible workers who have concerns or complaints, line managers can reiterate their availability to hear these and the action that will be taken if a flexible worker comes forwards. Once a concern is noted, confirm that this will be handled in line with normal procedures and keep the employee updated at all stages, noting that they may not be in the workplace to visually see these actions. If a delay is being caused by a matter outside of the manager’s control, again communicate this to the employee and agree new timescales for resolution. At the conclusion of the matter, set out the outcome reached and any further steps that will be taken. Where the flexible worker’s concerns reflected a matter relating to their feelings of isolation, segregation or disengagement, review whether further action is needed to create a positive working environment for the employee going forwards.