Guest opinion: Accessible flexible working is worth the challenge

In today’s economy, flexible working has particular currency for employers and employees alike. Legislation introduced in April 2003 increased the pressure on organisations to provide flexibility to employees. The key question is: how are organisations making increased flexibility work for both their business and employees?

Roffey Park has undertaken research seeking to answer that question. Drawing on case studies of six organisations – Ford, Vertex, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, the Legal Services Commission, Eli Lilly in the UK and East Sussex County Council – it underlines some of the key challenges being faced and the role of HR in overcoming some of these difficulties.

A key challenge for flexible working is sharing best practices already adopted by parts of a business. In a number of organisations, teams or departments have created flexible working practices, but in isolation. It is vital for a business to learn from such examples and roll out similar practices across the whole of the organisation.

Unsupportive managers can be a real block to creating a flexible environment. It is vital to coach managers who are initially unsupportive of flexible working. This will help produce a consistent and fair approach across the entire business.

Organisations also need to reinforce the message that taking up formal flexible working schemes will not impinge upon career progression. Many employees, especially managers, are reluctant to take up formal policies for this reason and a lack of career progression is viewed as a trade-off for flexibility. To overcome this, more senior role models need to work flexibly, and more flexible and part-time workers need to gain promotion.

There also needs to be greater consideration of flexible workers’ need for support and training. Team routines must be adapted so that all can attend meetings and fully contribute.

Our research suggests a partnership approach is needed if flexible working is to succeed. Leaders, managers and individuals all have a role to play. HR can also play a crucial role in developing and maintaining a culture that supports flexible working. HR should ensure that senior leaders buy into the changes needed to make flexible working succeed.

It is also important to empower employees to create flexible ways of working. When staff have a vested interest in planning their schedules, they are more likely to come up with creative answers.

It is best to work in partnership with trade unions, employee forums and professional associations to understand the broader views of employees. You should consider setting up employee resource groups to gather views and ideas from different groups within the organisation and feed these back to senior management.

You should also encourage better communication between employers, managers and staff, so line managers and employees are aware of organisational policies. And while it is good to use different channels to communicate the aims of flexible working and the options on offer, you should avoid creating long lists of policies with confusing names.

Regular briefings can bring managers up to speed with changing legislation relating to flexible working practices, while coaching can help line managers who are finding it difficult to adjust to new ways of working. Organisations also need to offer training, including refresher courses, in technologies to support virtual team working, for example, use of email, electronic diaries, electronic conferencing facilities and electronic whiteboards.

Companies should look at what makes policies work in certain areas and what is preventing them from working in others. Success stories need to be shared, for example, in newsletters, encouraging everyone to try flexible working and helping hesitant managers to look beyond the myths.

Clearly, implementing and managing flexible working arrangements creates challenges. It is important to take time to discuss and iron out responsibilities at the start of the change process, as well as to ensure that there are forums for reviewing how arrangements work in practice. But the benefits both for businesses and individuals are well worth the challenge.