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Fighting for flexibility

Steve Coomber

Flexible working

Despite countless formal policies and provisions, there is still widespread cultural resistance to flexible working, especially in certain sectors such as banking. Steve Coomber discovers how organisations can foster a culture of flexibility – and reap the benefits it brings

In November 2012, following a consultation about modern workplace practices, the UK coalition government announced it was extending the statutory right to request flexible working to include all employees. This measure, which takes effect in 2014, builds on the existing legislative framework, dating back to 2003, which gives parents and carers the “right to request” flexible working.

While the proposed extension looks like a bold step towards more progressive working arrangements, its true impact is difficult to gauge. To date, evidence suggests that surprisingly few employees have taken up their statutory right to request. Indeed, all too often it seems, employees feel unable to take advantage of flexible working provisions, even where an organisation’s policies go beyond the statutory requirements.

Cultural resistance

In many organisations there is strong cultural resistance to flexible and remote working, even when such schemes are in place. A recent report by the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM), Women in Banking, found that a perceived lack of flexible working opportunities was a major barrier to progression by 56% of women and 41% of men in the sector. Over two thirds (68%) of the female respondents felt positive action to increase availability of flexible working would be the biggest boon to career progression for women.

One objective should be to create a culture where employees feel able to request a change to their working arrangements, without worrying about it having an adverse effect on their career.

“Very often organisations have good policies, but don’t achieve a very high degree of uptake of flexible working,” says Clare Kelliher, professor of work and organisation, and author of New Ways of Organising Work. “Part of that is due to the environment in which some of them operate. There may be a pressured business environment and a reluctance to set up formalised arrangements for flexible working.”

Organisational culture plays a key role in encouraging or discouraging flexible working uptake. The ILM research, for example, found that a culture of presenteeism, where attendance is rewarded over output and negative attitudes towards people working remotely are prevalent, was a major obstacle to implementing effective flexible working. As one respondent said: “There’s still a legacy that working means coming into a certain place, being at your desk and being seen, rather than how your work might be seen from a distance.”

Yet research shows flexible working policies can be of great benefit to organisations and employees, across a range of key metrics from productivity to work engagement.

Making it stick

HR has a key role to play in making flexible working policies stick. One objective should be to create a culture where employees feel able to request a change to their working arrangements, without worrying about it having an adverse effect on their career.

Perceptions are an important part of creating the right culture. “One way you can change perceptions is by highlighting stories and cases of individuals who have changed their working arrangements,” says Kelliher. “Show how people have actually accommodated working in different ways, and what has it meant for their line manager, and for their colleagues, and show the tangible benefit to the business.”

It is important too, that senior people are seen to work flexibly. Interestingly the Financial Times published its first Timewise Jobs Power Part Time List in November 2012, reinforcing the idea that it is acceptable to work part-time in a senior role.

Undoubtedly, both manager and employers will have to adapt to new ways of working. “It’s essential that flexible working isn’t just parachuted in – it has to be well managed. Without training, both at line manager and individual employee level, flexible working can degenerate into being available all the time,” says Simon Burnett, programme manager at Working Families, a not-for-profit work/life balance organisation.

There has to be a dialogue between line manager and employee. The line manager should understand what is fair and acceptable to ask of their employee at certain times, while the employee needs to know what will and will not be expected of them.

A key pinch point where flexible working can help is employee retention following maternity leave. “It means speaking to women prior to maternity leave and asking what kind of flexibility they will need when they return,” says Burnett. “It’s about allowing the individual to feel an active contributing agent in the discussion.”

As Burnett notes, research by the Department for Work and Pensions () shows that 86% of mothers with access to five or more family-friendly arrangements went back to work after childbearing, compared with 42% of those with no such arrangements. 

A modern workforce

Even if an organisation is successful in changing attitudes towards flexible working, there will still be issues to resolve. There are implications for learning and development, for example. “If you work side by side with somebody, you see them doing things. You overhear them on the telephone, and you learn by being surrounded by your colleagues,” says Kelliher. “It is important to recognise that some of the informal learning in the workplace may be reduced as a result of people working in different ways.”

Ultimately, though, organisations should recognise that by embracing flexible working practices, they have nothing to fear and a lot to gain. As Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister and a well-known champion of flexible working, noted: “A modern workforce is a flexible workforce too.”


Flexible working defined

The government defines flexible working as “a way of working that suits an employee’s needs.” This includes: job sharing; working from home; part time working; compressed hours; flexitime annualised hours; and staggered hours.


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