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Flexible working guidelines

Guidelines to help employers and employees see ways of introducing more flexibility into how they work.

As ICAEW President I saw a real need to promote flexible working among our membership, to make it a positive career choice for both men and women. Flexible working can cover when you work (the pattern of your hours), where you work (in an office, from home, at clients) and how long you work (ie, not necessarily full time).

I spent the first half of 2017 discussing the subject with members, and these guidelines are the result. I hope you find them useful, and would be interested to hear your experiences.

Hilary Lindsay, Immediate Past President

Guidelines for employers

Lead from the top and embed throughout the organisation

  • There needs to be commitment to flexible working from the top of the organisation and flexible working needs to be embedded throughout. To attract future leaders, flexible working needs to be seen as completely normal across the organisation. There need to be role models at all levels. The leaders themselves should work flexibly and talk about their own experiences of doing school runs, volunteering or pursuing other interests.
  • Flexible working should be a routine topic of conversation when individual objectives are being set rather than an issue raised when someone has reached breaking point.
  • All employees with a minimum of 26 weeks’ continuous service have the right to request flexible working and to have their request considered seriously.
  • Employees should be encouraged to pursue their passions. If employees have time to volunteer, you will have a more contented workforce. Value judgements around the reasons why people choose to work flexibly should be avoided.
  • The atmosphere or culture of an organisation can mean people may not ask for flexible working even if it is technically available. They may perceive it as being career limiting. If new recruits are not aware flexible working is available they may not ask. In general flexible working is becoming more of an expectation. Employees have moved on from an organisation, may do so or may not join in the first place if flexible working is not available.

Use to help recruitment and retention

  • Working arrangements need to reflect the wider social preferences of younger employees and students who value their own time more and can be less motivated by money. Firms need to respond to this to be fit for the future.
  • Organisations will have fewer job applicants if they do not offer flexible working. 
  • Organisations often offer flexible working to existing employees but do not mention this in job advertisements. They should use flexible working as a differentiator to help them attract as well as retain employees.
  • People today are more used to changing jobs. If flexible working is not offered they may be more likely to move on.
  • Firms that offer flexible working and unlimited holidays are effective recruiters.

Have clear policies and processes

  • Each employer will need guidance and arrangements specific to their context, including formal employment policies and processes and its approach and support for the concept.
  • There needs to be a level of transparency and clarity around the process. This should mean, for example, that full-timers do not mind working alongside part-timers. Employees are often unsure about the processes and what they need to do.
  • Some employees may seek to take advantage of flexible working. There will be some instances where disciplinary action needs to be taken, but this applies to any aspect of employment. Any that do seek to take advantage will be compromising their careers.

Support line managers

  • Line managers need support in learning how to cope with flexible working and developing the skills they will need. Flexible working can be seen as a threat to the existing way of doing things. They need to be helped to see the potential benefits.
  • There needs to be a consistent approach across the organisation.
  • How line managers perceive, interpret or respond to any absence from the office is critical to the success of any flexible working initiative. People can be over-concerned about when and where work is completed. No preference should be given to those who are, or are not, present.
  • If line managers are fully supported this will help promote the organisation as embracing flexible working and being seen as an employer of choice.

Focus on outputs/outcomes

  • Try to measure outputs so the emphasis is on what the employee achieves rather than how they achieve it. Time sheets and project management software can help with this.
  • The emphasis needs to be on empowerment and employees being able to achieve tasks whether they are in the office or not.
  • One firm measure outputs through chargeable hour and case closure targets then provides unlimited holidays to all. Another firm lets their staff work where they want and when they want as long as the firm has happy clients.

Guidelines for employers and employees

Encourage a flexible approach which meets business needs

  • Employers and employees both need to be clear what the business needs are, then be flexible enough to address them. There need to be clear boundaries for the employer and the employer. What is fixed? What could flex? A small amount of flex can make a big difference.
  • Organisations need to discuss their clients’ needs with them. One firm’s fear of how clients would react was very different to what happened in practice. Clients may not want staff on their premises or may want support outside core hours or in different time zones. They may themselves be working flexibly and have different needs because of that.
  • There needs to be give and take between employers and employees.
  • Departmental teams need to work out collectively how to provide the cover needed.
  • Identify role models and champions across the organisation and share case studies. Individuals need to feel able to be open about what has worked well, what has not worked so well and what could be done differently.

Nurture trust

  • Trust lies at the heart of any flexible working arrangement. Building and maintaining trust between employers and employees is paramount. A key element is the relationship between the employee and their line manager.
  • If firms trust employees with their clients who are their most important asset, they should be willing to trust employees with when and where they carry out their work. The counterpoint is that just because employees are visible in the office does not mean they are automatically working.
  • There will be trust when any flexible working arrangement is agreed. The employer and employee need to avoid chipping away at this and instead provide opportunities for the trust to build.
  • If in a flexible working arrangement you cannot say you have too much work on and be believed, then you have already lost trust.

Engage with flexible workers

  • A close team environment needs to be fostered so some employees don’t feel isolated because of their working patterns. Employees working from home still need to meet face to face on occasion. If employees are working different hours, you need to take care to make them feel part of a team. Those who are unable to attend staff development sessions still need to be briefed about them.
  • There needs to be a focus on effective communication. Line managers should check in with employees working at home, so they feel involved, but care should be taken so it does not feel as if the manager is checking up on them.
  • Employees working from home need the right level of IT support and equipment. Problems can seem bigger when someone is working on their own. Connection speeds can be an issue.

Respond to the ‘always on’ culture

  • Overall the aim is to manage the expectations of both the employer and the employee while being able to respond to emergencies. Having a mobile phone can mean an employee is never out of reach but having some downtime is a key part of everyone’s wellbeing.
  • Some organisations have a policy that says emails should not be sent between 7pm and 7am unless they are business critical. Some CEOs or CFOs who work part-time arrange to receive texts at any time if there is an urgent issue but ask not to be phoned when they are not at work.
  • Emails can be too intrusive. Consider what times you send emails. If you send them at unsocial hours make it clear you do not expect an immediate reply. Or save them and send them at a later time. Consider including your core hours in your email signature. Schedule your emails to arrive once an hour. Some employees prefer to deal with any ‘easy’ emails while on holiday: others prefer to have a complete break.

Rethink how jobs are done

  • There will be different flexible working possibilities across the different roles in an organisation. The flexing could be about when hours are worked, how many hours are worked and where those hours are worked.
  • Possible arrangements include home-working, part-time working, condensed hours, term-time working, annualised hours, job sharing and so on. The list is endless but each flexible working arrangement needs to be bespoke to its context.
  • The idea of flexible working seems to be gaining greater acceptance, but part-time working can still be seen as career limiting and to be more challenging. One specific concern is that employees may have to spend a greater proportion of their time on non-productive work. If more flexibility is introduced into when work is done then fewer employees may need to reduce the number of hours they work.

Guidelines for employees

Make your case requesting flexible working with care

  • Consider your business case for asking to work flexibly. How will it benefit both the business and you? You can only make one request in any twelve month period, so give your application your best shot.
  • Be realistic and open-minded. Think about the impact your request would have on the rest of the team. If this is what you want how would others need to adjust? Think through possible solutions to potential issues. Talk to other members of the team as you develop your plans. It can be easier to be flexible in some disciplines and sectors than others.
  • As with any change your new arrangement could first be introduced on a trial basis and reviewed.
  • If you could work more flexibly you may not need to reduce your hours. A small adjustment may make a big difference to you.
  • Part-time jobs are not widely advertised so you may need to start a role full-time and then negotiate. It seems to be hard at present to move from one part-time job to another.

Own your lifestyle

  • You are the person best placed to influence and change your lifestyle. If you don’t ask, you won’t get. Individuals sometimes think the bar is higher than it is so they don’t try. It’s better to ask before you reach breaking point.
  • Flexible working is still evolving and needs pioneers. However it does not suit everyone. You need the right temperament to work flexibly. It can be particularly hard to change from full-time to part-time.
  • Working part-time may slow your career progression, but that is your choice.
  • If you are working hours that suit you, you will give more of yourself rather than merely transacting the job.
  • Some non-work activities are about enrichment and can help make you a fully rounded fulfilled individual.

Communicate your arrangements

  • Consider who needs to know about your arrangements (e.g. your team, the broader business, clients) and with your line manager develop a communication plan.
  • Communicate positively and confidently about your working arrangements. Realise you will be seen as a role model.
  • Make sure you have effective relationships with work colleagues and clients. Let them know when you are and are not available and how they should contact you, or who else they should contact, in an emergency.
  • If working remotely, consciously work at keeping in touch. Call your manager and team from time to time just to help keep the team feeling.
  • Remember clients and work colleagues may be working flexibly as well.

Manage your availability

  • Do some scenario planning around situations that might arise at work or at home and how you will handle them. Put contingency plans in place.
  • Be aware of the danger of being always available and not able to switch off. Manage expectations and develop an approach that works for you, your employer, your colleagues and your clients.
  • Use the answer phone and out of office messages. Be clear about when you will be dealing with emails. Sending emails at unsocial hours may or may not work in your situation. Include your hours of work in your email sign off.
  • If working from home, create your own space to work from.
  • Consider the impact what you do will have on others.

Be positive but realistic

  • Try not to feel defensive or apologetic about your working arrangements but do realise you will be seen as an example of flexible working.
  • Let others have access to your diary. Be open about attending the school play, volunteering, etc.
  • If you feel guilty when working from home, try to work out why and address it. If you feel guilty when leaving work earlier than others, realise you may be creating your own guilt.
  • Be aware of the danger of over-compensating for the privilege you have been given. The arrangement is meant to be a win:win.
  • Don’t pretend flexible working is perfect. Be human about it and be a realistic role model.