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This is the second of our series of articles aimed at human resource managers, line managers and others responsible for organising, managing, supporting, recruiting, training and retaining staff and with an interest in introducing more flexible working methods.

Here we examine the introduction and management of flexible working from a human resources manager's perspective.

 

 

 

Working flexibly

A definition:

A useful definition of flexible working relates to when, where, how and what work is done:

Flexible time: Work is performed at times that better suit the employer and/or employee
Flexible place: Work is carried out wherever is most appropriate and effective for the employer and/or employee.

Flexible contract:

Workers are employed and/or rewarded in non-standard ways.
Flexible tasks: Multi-skilled workers are able to undertake a variety of tasks according to need.

Who gains?

The beneficiaries of flexible working include:

Employers, who are able to match resources to work need and attract and retain staff, whilst reducing fixed costs, boosting productivity and improving customer service.

Employees, who can gain access to employment, explore new career opportunities, raise their incomes, reduce their living costs and balance more effectively the demands of work and home.

Families, communities and the environment can also gain: these issues are addressed further in other Flexibility articles.

For the HR manager, the challenge is to develop and implement new working practices that benefit both the business and the staff.  In the long term these interests converge: a more contented and motivated workforce will deliver improved business performance.

Types of jobs:

Several treatises have been written on the demands and characteristics of different types of job, analysing interactivity, autonomy, dependencies and other factors.  It is beyond the scope of this book to go into this in any detail, but it is nevertheless important to understand how roles differ and, as a consequence, how different types of flexibility apply.

A common segmentation, which can be applied in a variety of sectors, is into manager, professional, front-line support and back-office support.

An illustration:

The following example, from a business-to-business sales and marketing operation, shows where people were spending their working time worked before and after the introduction of flexible working:

Before:

  Main office Satellite office Home Away
Managers 40%   5% 55%
Professionals 33%   6% 61%
Front-line support 100%      
Back-office support 100%      

After:

  Main office Satellite office Home Away
Managers 25% 5% 20% 50%
Professionals

16%

  26% 58%
Front-line support  

83%

17%  
Back-office support 60% 25% 15%  

This was achieved through a combination of the following measures:

  • Managers and professionals were equipped and enabled to do some of their work at home.

  • Although time away remained broadly the same, travel was reduced substantially and more time was spent with customers and business partners.

  • The front-line support unit - in effect a call-centre - was relocated closer to a residential area and a flexible, staff-driven rota scheme was introduced.  Some people were set up to work part-time from their homes.

  • The total numbers of back-office staff were reduced, with some relocated to the satellite office and some work - mainly finance - being carried out at home.  In parallel a flexitime scheme was introduced.

  • Along with all this, the main office was reduced in size and remodelled into mainly shared space, paper-free business processes were introduced, remote access technologies installed to facilitate more productive home and mobile working and the call centre service extended from 40 to 60 hours per week.

Although details will vary from case to case, this example is not atypical, showing how HR managers need to work with their facilities and technology colleagues to deliver solutions that work for both the business and its people.

Responding to demand:

A common situation faced by HR managers is that individual members of staff put in a request for more flexible working arrangements, usually in response to changed personal circumstances.  Managers have a duty, reinforced in part by recent European employment legislation, not to practice policies that discriminate against particular groups of worker: those with disabilities or degenerative illnesses, parents of young children, carers of elderly relatives, etc.  Other requests from staff may result from relocation because of a partner's job or a desire for a lifestyle change.

These requests often present a dilemma for HR managers for two main reasons: business impact and precedent.  For example a request to work part-time may necessitate the recruitment of another part-time worker or substantial re-allocation of work to other staff members.  Also many employment-related costs are fixed, for example premises and IT, whether someone is working full- or part-time.  Finally HR managers are often fearful of raising expectations amongst staff in general, and then being unable to deliver.

The result of all this is often a fudge, with no clear policies and different arrangements applying depending on department or role.  In these circumstances, with no clear business justification, flexible working can be perceived as a burden on the organisation.  The survey in 1998 by Mitel, Teleworking in Britain, found that 65% of companies had no policy for teleworking.

The solution is to be ahead of the game, with active policies for flexible working that both benefit the business and satisfy the aspirations of staff.

Challenging the status quo:

It is not only cultural factors that inhibit flexible working.  Many organisations have deeply entrenched ways of organising themselves or going about their work that are rarely challenged, for example:

  • The numbers and roles of managers

  • Work output expectations

  • Support staff ratios

  • Demarcation - who does what?

  • Rank and role entitlements: offices, secretaries, company cars, etc

  • Working and opening hours.

The greatest business performance improvements from flexible working are often delivered when it is part of a more radical overhaul of business processes and working practices.

HR managers are often expected to fulfil purely tactical roles - hiring, firing, training and dealing with day-to-day issues.  Outdated working practices can sometimes persist unchallenged for years.  The understanding and promotion of the business benefits of flexible working give a new and more strategic role to today's human resources specialists.

Next article: Work-life balance

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