Agile working – is this viable for your flexible business?

Earlier this year, Timewise published its seventh annual Power 50 Awards – a list of 50 people in top UK jobs who achieve everything they do working part-time or flexibly. This sparks the question: is it time for more businesses to embrace flexible working? Is flexible working right for all businesses?

If you are planning to implement an agile working policy, there are a number of things to consider to ensure your business can operate effectively. It’s not a one size fits all approach.

From a diversity perspective, having more flexible working should enable you to attract a more diverse workforce and subsequently have access to a wider talent pool. As a result, you will have to consider the implications of employing staff who need to work part-time hours due to family or other caring commitments, or staff who could work remotely part of the time on non-office based tasks, particularly if they have a long commute.

By embracing different working arrangements, the benefits can be a win-win situation for both the employer and employee, with employees being able to improve their work-life balance, and with happier employees being more productive and having less sickness absence.

Having said this, introducing flexible working needs careful consideration. For smaller businesses or those that operate 24 hours a day, an agile working arrangement comes with certain challenges, specifically the need for the workplace to be staffed with sufficient numbers of employees on any given day.

Employers are obliged by legislation to consider a flexible working request if it comes in from an employee that has 26 weeks’ continuous service. The Flexible Working Regulations 2014 require employers to give serious consideration to requests from these qualifying employees. The request can be for any reason, not just for caring responsibilities, and must be considered in a reasonable manner.

Employers may only refuse a request for one (or more) of eight specified reasons:

  • The burden of additional costs 
  • An inability to reorganise work amongst existing staff 
  • An inability to recruit additional staff 
  • A detrimental impact on quality
  • A detrimental impact on performance 
  • A detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand 
  • Insufficient work for the periods the employee proposes to work 
  • A planned structural change to the business

Consider the sector you are working in, your business model and requirements

In more traditional organisations, the introduction of a flexible working policy is likely to require a significant cultural change. Managers need to consider whether flexible working could fit within the organisation’s overarching business model and if so, how the flexible working policy should be introduced and communicated to employees. For example, a hotdesking policy could go hand in hand with encouraging staff to work remotely on one or two days per week to decrease the amount of office space required.

Do you need to be transparent about your approach to flexible working? If you embrace flexible working, then yes, but if you don’t then you are not legally obliged to have a policy published.

With regard to your policy towards flexible working, consideration needs to be given to the eligibility criteria for flexible working aside from the qualifying service. When it comes to remote working, employees will need to be performing tasks which lend themselves to being performed remotely.

It may not be appropriate for administrative support staff to work remotely, but opportunities could exist for these employees to work part-time or change their working hours to fit in with their other commitments. For younger employees, opportunities for study leave/career development training may be offered as options too and enable them to work flexibly.

You may also need to consider changes to how the business will manage office communications once you’ve implemented flexible working arrangements. Technological changes may be required, such as introducing skype and video-conferencing facilities, the provision of devices for staff, and ensuring employee’s own IT equipment has up to date security systems installed before access is given to the business’ network.

Preparing a tailor-made flexible working policy

In your policy, you should be clear on the type of flexibility you are able to offer and the circumstances when flexible working arrangements would be appropriate and provide examples of these circumstances.  

Staff making requests need to be made aware that the requests should be set out in detail to someone identified as responsible for considering the requests in the policy. It should also make clear that the employee must familiarise themselves with the organisation’s expectations of those working remotely, in terms of communication and availability.  You would also need to update other policies such as health and safety, IT, use of social media and data protection to take account of different working arrangements.

Approval of agile working requests

This could potentially be a minefield for businesses if not dealt with in a fair manner and so it is important that your policy clearly sets out the circumstances in which flexible working could be an option. The examples given should cover as wide a range of scenarios as possible.  These need to be applicable for employees at different stages of their career and in different areas of your business, to avoid disgruntled employees bringing grievances or accusing your business of unlawful discrimination. Beware of offering new employees a special arrangement which has not been offered to existing employees.

Remote working and integration

It is essential to consider the health and safety aspects for those staff members who work permanently on a remote basis. As an employer, you owe a duty of care under the contract of employment to look after the employee’s health and safety at work – this includes the remote working environment. Under health and safety legislation you also need to look after the physical and mental health of your employees. You need to identify a competent person who can assess the health and safety risks and address them, both in the office and with home working.

Managing and integrating remote workers within the business can be another challenge to consider. It is important that there is regular dialogue between employees and their managers and that they have access to the same training, development and promotion opportunities. In addition, appropriate steps should be taken to ensure the remote worker is as integrated within the team as possible whilst ensuring the business has proper oversight of their work.

The future

Organisations are constantly evolving, and with the help of new technology, agile working is becoming more feasible and accessible. Whether or not agile working is appropriate for your business will depend on what you do, however, immediate changes to the business landscape for all sectors are likely. With Brexit on the horizon and longer-term changes brought about by technology and artificial intelligence, employers will need to regularly review their approach to agile working to keep up with this changing landscape. In this regard, it pays for employers to be agile!

>See also: Public Sector organisations continue to lead the way in flexible working according to new survey

Pam Loch is Managing Director of the Loch Associates Group.  To discuss any of the issues raised in this article, contact Pam on 0203 667 5400, or email pam.loch@lochassociates.co.uk