Don’t underestimate the importance of flexible working to stem the tide of employees voting with their feet
We know that the pandemic resulted in an unprecedented increase in agile working practices, largely as a crisis response. Fast-forward 2 ½ years and flexible working is, once again, being talked about both as a retention tool, as well as an essential part of employers’ recruitment strategy in a candidate driven market.
For all that’s been written about the business benefits of flexible working, pilot schemes by large corporates to trial 4-day weeks, and the known importance of flexible-working to staff retention and wellbeing, reticence continues to stifle change and advancement in this area. We’re already starting to see lots of employers taking steps to enforce a return to pre-pandemic working practices, in readiness for the planned removal of restrictions, and eradicating so much of the flexibility that so many employees have valued and have come to rely on over the past 2 ½ years. This is not only a missed opportunity but, in the age of the #Greatresignation, could threaten business survival.
Of course, it is well known that this is an area that the UK Government are looking into; their open consultation at the end of last year, “Making flexible working the default” was designed to consider five ways in which the current legal framework for making flexible working requests could change and improve. With the results of the consultation still to be published, one of the likely outcomes will be that the statutory right to request flexible working will become a ‘day one right’, essentially placing flexible working on the same footing with other key terms of employment (salary, notice) from the outset of the recruitment process, rather than after the employee has attained 6 months’ service. Sounds good, and certainly a step in the right direction, but, it is still only going to be a right to request (and not a right to have) a flexible working pattern. There are currently no proposals for the statutory right to be extended to become an automatic right to have (or demand) a flexible or part-time working pattern, and we anticipate that any law change will leave largely untouched the current leeway afforded to employers to say that flexible working isn’t right for their business / the role.
One of the other, more enlightened, proposals under consideration as part of the consultation is a requirement for employers to have to come up with alternatives and try to reach a compromise with employees in circumstances where they can’t (or won’t) agree to their original request. Adopting this type of approach would represent quite a change from the current position and is very much in line with the advice we give our clients – all too often the 8 business grounds are used as a checklist for refusing a request, rather than focusing on the important task of trying to retain the employee, their knowledge and skills.
Trial periods are an excellent and under-utilised way to meet the needs of employees and test the operational feasibility of a flexible working pattern. A try-before-you-buy style approach, if you will. As we advise clients who are reluctant or just plain nervous about agreeing to a flexible working request, it’s far better to be proven right, and have the evidence to support this, than to reject the request on a ‘hunch’ that it won’t work and land yourself in an employment tribunal with little chance of defending your position. More often that not, the reality is something different: an engaged, motivated, loyal employee who proves to their employer that they can work just as productively (perhaps even more so) with a flexible working arrangement that suits them and their particular needs at the time. A win-win, and no Tribunal claim!
While the law in this area is going to be subject to some change, the pace and scale of legislative change simply isn’t going to be quick or deep enough to make any material impact. Cultural change is what’s needed if truly flexible working practices are to become the norm and embedded throughout the UK’s workforce. Only then will we see a return to more parity and stem the tide of employees leaving in search of roles which are better aligned with their lifestyle choices.
It still feels that we are some distance away from a universal acceptance that the way people (or a healthy majority of people) want to work has been transformed and is here to stay, but that’s where employers (and by this we mean, Boards, senior leadership) need to be to build a stable, engaged workforce and attract the best talent to their organisations. Some employers are there – take online fashion retailer, ASOS, as an example, they recently announced that staff will be allowed to work flexibly, as well as take time off at short notice, while going through the menopause. A brilliant initiative underlining the importance of thinking about flexible working across the entire life-cycle of employment, considering both the needs of younger and older workers. It’s also been reported this week that Jo Whitfield, Head of Co-op’s Food Division is going to be taking 4 months of unpaid leave to support her sons through their A-level and GCSE exams. While subject to some criticism as being a perk that is only available to the privileged few, having examplars and role models like this in senior leadership positions working flexibly, and taking time out without repercussion, is absolutely essential if flexible working is to become normalised and more widely accepted.
With restrictions soon to be ending, now is the ideal time for employers to figure out what flexible working means for them, and their organisation long-term and to celebrate and promote flexible working, and those who work flexibly, more than ever before. If you’d like to tap into our considerable experience of flexible working initiatives and/or how to handle flexible working requests, please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org or come along to our April coffee morning which will be focused on flexible working and avoiding the pitfalls. Find out more here