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Flexible working: how can business benefit?

13 March 2020: while the recent boom in flexible working has many obvious advantages for employees, it may also offer benefits for employers willing to embrace more agile practices. Former practice owner and business author Della Hudson gives her view.

A lot has been written about how employees want more flexible working, but nobody seems to address the employers who are expected to implement it. Setting up such systems can be challenging and is often left to partners who have spent their whole careers with the mindset that long hours is the route to success, with no prior experience of any other ways of working.

Demand for more flexible working has also been turbo-charged in recent weeks by the Coronavirus outbreak and the need for affected employees to potentially self-isolate.

Some years back I found myself faced with a flexible working dilemma. I loved my job but, once I had children, it was clear to me that I wanted to spend time with them. I wanted an employer who would accommodate my personal needs and, when I couldn’t find one, I set up my own practice. And I ensured that my whole team also had part-time, flexible working.

How to go about it?

Remove the connection between hours worked and fees. Clients pay for our expertise or to solve a problem. It seems that the firms still relying on hourly billing are also writing off time. If you’re under-recovering on a job, then what is the point of billing this way?

The other key to making flexible working work is to have good training and communication. 

  • Practice management software is in use in all but the smallest firms and this can be utilised for storing notes about the client and the job so that anybody can pick it up if required. 
  • Personal targets must be clear and agreed. Very few appraisals list “work 40+ hours a week” as a goal, as this is not what the business truly needs.
  • Allocate clients to account managers who can then allocate jobs to their teams. Managers are accountable for the client’s satisfaction and the team member for the particular job.
  • Ensure good initial and ongoing training for all the team on how work should be carried out. 
  • Managers need to be trained on managing by results, especially those who are currently spending their time micromanaging.
  • Shared diaries for booking meetings.
  • General communication platform for team working and some socialising.
  • Some face-to-face time. We held monthly lunch and learn sessions and an annual post-tax return party. Even if you have an international team then you should try to meet up once a year.

How to ensure that work still gets done

If a client needs a set of accounts by a certain date and there is a clear procedure on how to collect the data and carry out the work to the required standard, then there will be a clear outcome. On larger jobs there can be smaller stages to check in along the way to ensure that everything is on track.

Most teams have a weekly huddle online or offline just to check what everybody is working on and what support they need.

What happens if somebody abuses the flexibility?

If you insist that everybody has to be in the office by 9am then you presumably have a disciplinary policy regarding people who fail to meet this target. Flexible working is no different. If staff fail to meet their targets, then their manager needs to investigate further and help them to change their behaviour.

What happens if employers don’t allow flexible working?

Just look at the women (and men) leaving firms to set up on their own. Some stay on as disgruntled employees but many move on to a more flexible employer or to become their own boss. And the results of sticking with inflexible policies include:

  • employers losing their talent;
  • employers having to recruit and train new employees; and
  • a lack of diversity: studies show that more diverse businesses produce better results, but a lack of flexibility drives out mainly women and makes it harder for those with disabilities to join the business in the first place.

What are the benefits to employers?

Shorter days are more productive, so working a five-hour day may not be too different from an eight-hour day when it comes to results.

  • A more diverse workforce.
  • Staff can often work a few hours from home through minor illnesses or child sickness instead of losing a full day.
  • The business is set up to accommodate remote working through severe weather conditions or pandemics such as the recent coronavirus outbreak.
  • Less competition with staff setting up on their own or moving elsewhere to meet their personal goals.
  • Less time spent reintegrating women back into the workforce if they take a shorter career break.
  • Retain experienced staff for longer but on reduced hours.

There are many excuses that employers can use for not implementing flexible working but, if the will is there, it requires relatively little to support a good work life balance for the whole team so that employers can retain their best talent.