Practical ideas for small businesses
We asked a range of New Zealand businesses and organisations to tell us how they made flexibility work for them. This section provides their practical and sage advice for owners and managers of other small and medium sized businesses.
- Getting started
- Lessons learnt
- Making it work
What do we mean by flexibility?
There are two key elements to flexible working arrangements.
Hours and/or place of work are other than the traditional 40 hour week worked Monday to Friday, at the employer's place of business.
This might mean working more or less than the 40 hours a week, working variable hours, working non-standard hours e.g. late or early starts or working only parts of the year. It may involve working from home. These arrangements might be on an intermittent or regular basis.
Employees may be working different patterns which reflect the work they do and their personal situation, rather than all employees working the same.
Employees have some ability to choose, negotiate or request specific work arrangements.
This means that both the employer and the employee have some input into what hours the employee works and what leave they can take. This may be through reaching a mutual agreement on varying the number of hours worked at different times. It may be through the employee choosing which shifts they want to sign up for. It may be the team as a whole sitting down and working out what hours are the best fit for the work and the preferences of the team members. Or, it may be the employee signalling early their preference for when they take annual holidays, or a day off to attend a specific event.
Who needs flexibility in their working arrangements?
Many employees need flexibility in their working arrangements. The employers we talked to cited examples of:
- people doing other work e.g. freelance photographer
- people serious about sport
- people with a range of family responsibilities including elderly relatives and partners with long term illnesses or disabilities
- people with their own health issues
- people on the Domestic Purposes Benefit or other benefits
- people with other interests e.g. need leave during the film festival
- people involved in the arts
- people moving towards retirement.
For some, flexible working arrangements mean that employment is now possible, whereas before it was all too difficult. For others, it provides the possibility of combining work with other aspects of their lives, rather than having to choose between them.
Why do employers choose to offer flexibility?
The employers we talked to said the benefits they have gained through offering flexibility include:
Getting and keeping the right staff
Offering flexibility has helped employers get and keep the right staff in a tight labour market.
If I couldn't get women with children, who can only work restricted hours, then I wouldn't have anybody.
A suburban restaurant owner explained that skilled people are sought after. To encourage their chef to work in the suburbs they try to give him all or some of the weekend off to be with his family.
To get the best people I need to give them as much freedom as possible.
I don't think that businesses like mine keep staff because of the wages - they are all about the same in our industry. It is about people thinking you treat them well and having respect for them.
Getting the best from staff
People are more committed and trustworthy when you have a personal relationship with them and treat them as whole people - and take their needs seriously. They feel that you care and take them seriously.
Getting flexibility in return
Most employers have times when they need flexibility from their employees. A rush order, wanting to extend opening hours, a sudden resignation or someone calling in sick. These employers found that they were more likely to get a positive response to requests for flexibility if they had an established track record of being flexible about employee's needs.
Better customer service
Good customer service is critical to most small businesses.
For many employers, this was one of their key motivations for being flexible.
For some, it is about building and maintaining a relationship with their customers.
Having committed staff that stay with you means customers get the same people each week.
For other employers it is about the quality of the service their staff provides. If being flexible and responsive means that they keep employees longer, they get a return on their investment in training staff and as a result offer customers a better service.
In some cases it is just making sure that customers enjoy the interaction with their employees.
If people don't want to be here it shows to the customers.
For some flexibility has been about getting more interesting staff.
People with a life tend to be more interesting - they reinforce our culture, brand and image.
For others, it is about reputation.
It's not possible to run a business with lower end wages if you are not flexible - no-one would work for you or they would ruin your reputation.
Experience suggests that there are some key principles for managing flexible working arrangements successfully.
Know your constraints, and then look for the possibilities for being flexible.
It's about give and take
There has to be clear expectation from the beginning that this is about give and take by both the employer and employee.
'Win/win' for the business, the team and the individual
Arrangements that do not work for all three will not be sustainable in the long term.
You can't always treat people the same
It is important to think about people as individuals with different needs that will change over time. Instead of creating an environment where there is only one way of doing things, where possible create one that is flexible enough for all employees to contribute fully.
Share the responsibility
Involve staff in solving problems and finding better ways to do things. Be up front about work pressures and demands. Encourage them to sort out amongst themselves, as much as possible, any work problems or competing demands before turning to you or their manager.
Flexibility works well if there is good communication between you and the individual concerned, and you and the full team. In particular it is important for everyone to understand who makes what decisions.
Keep an eye on things
Most of the time things will go smoothly. But when it doesn't, it is much easier to intervene early, rather than when problems have grown.
Don't set it all in concrete
Business needs change. Individual's needs change. You will need to be able to respond to both. Often it is useful to start with a trial that can be extended, adapted or halted, depending on how well it works.
Keep it legal
Make sure you know what your rights and responsibilities are under employment legislation, and what you have agreed to in your employment agreements. When necessary, get specialist advice.