This section expands on some of the key principles and explores some of the lessons that employers have learnt about managing flexible working arrangements.
Set the scene from the beginning
Many surveys show that flexibility at work is at least as important as money for many employees. If you can offer flexibility, use it to help recruit staff. Include it in your job advertisements, job descriptions and web site.
Look for staff who will work well in a flexible environment. Be clear that flexibility is about give and take. Explain what flexibility you can offer. Explore what flexibility is available on their part.
When people start work
Be clear about your expectations regarding flexibility. What's possible and what is not. How they might access flexible arrangements. What you expect of them as far as notice and communication. What you expect of them in return such as backing up other colleagues, and where they can, covering for others so everyone can take a turn.
When requests are made
It is important to reinforce that flexibility is about give and take when people make requests for flexible arrangements.
That's fine, so long as you will...
This time okay, but it may not be possible in the future...
Given how flexible you have been in the past, I am happy to ...
Plan for flexibility
Several employers talked about how the need to be flexible led them to being much more structured and organised in how they manage their work. One employer took a 'what if they won lotto?' approach, to ensure that if any staff member did not come to work, someone else could cover for them, at least on a temporary basis. This required them to document key processes, have clear guidelines for new staff, deliberately cross train staff so they could cover for each other and have good systems for monitoring progress on work. As well as being good risk management and help them streamline the operation, they found they had much more scope for responding to employee's needs for adjustments in hours or leave.
Teamwork can make it easier
Strong teamwork makes flexibility much easier. This is about people knowing each other well enough to understand and be sympathetic to each other's needs, about knowing each other's jobs well enough to be able to back each other up, and having a sense of joint responsibility for the success of the company and getting the job done. Good teams are more likely to find solutions for themselves, rather than leaving it to the manager to have to decide and organise.
Keep track of what is agreed
Several of the employers had learnt the hard way that it is important to write down the agreements they made with their employees and include it in, or attach it to, their employment agreement. Putting it in writing is useful for checking that you have the same understanding of the agreement you are making, clarifying expectations, for ensuring that critical details don't get forgotten, and minimising the chance that later you and your employee have a different memory of what has been agreed.
For similar reasons it is also useful for staff to write down any arrangements they make, such as swapping shifts or days off. Even if they have to check it with you to okay the arrangement, getting them to write it down and both sign it gets them to take responsibility for making it work, and reduces the chance of you having to untangle misunderstandings later.
Keep it fair and consistent
Access to flexibility needs to be as fair as possible. This means that decisions to grant or deny requests need to be justifiable and explainable. Employers were aware of setting precedents. They were clear that if you are to do it for one person, you need to be able to potentially do it for another if the situation is similar.
Opportunities need to be spread across the organisation. People may need to take turns at accessing flexibility.
It is important that flexibility for one person does not mean that others carry extra and unpaid work. Everyone has issues in their lives and it is important that one person does not dominate.
This does not mean that everyone has to be treated the same way. Individuals will have different needs at different times. Employers advise that you need to have rules, but not rigidity.
Set a clear standard but take each situation on its own merits.
They are also clear on the need to be fair, but firm.
Not the same as being stupid or too soft - if they don't perform or take advantage of the team - they are out.
Be prepared to have the hard conversations.
As businesses grow, it is often sensible to delegate responsibility for managing, at least some of the staff, to a manager or team leader. Care is needed to ensure that there is a consistency in approach to issues of flexibility between owners and managers. Different approaches can lead to setting one or other up as 'the bad guy', undermining the other's authority and sending staff conflicting messages. It is useful to agree on a common approach in advance, regularly update arrangements and document the type of issues that are arising.
Keep an eye on things
All the employers in this project found that it was important to keep an eye on the flexible arrangements they were using, and on the impact they had on the organisation and its work. In a very small company, this involved the manager or owner observing on a daily basis and taking time on a weekly or monthly basis to step back and reflect on how things are going. When the organisation is larger, systems are useful to pick up patterns and trends that managers may not see directly. In particular employers suggest watching:
- Workloads - are they reasonable, realistic and fairly spread?
- Hours - are people working more or less hours than needed? Are the hours of work sustainable? Is the use of overtime, or the accumulation of time-in-lieu, appropriate and affordable?
- Workflow - are there bottlenecks or blockages that impact negatively on people managing the downstream work? Is the work managed in a way that minimises the need for unpredictable or last minute overtime?
- Type and number of requests for flexibility - are patterns emerging that suggest the need to revisit rosters or job design? Are the working arrangements compatible with each other and with the needs of the business?
- Performance - does the performance of people working in flexible arrangements meet expectations?
These employers are looking for sustainable working arrangements that do not compromise the organisation's performance, cash flow or the future availability of staff.
When problems arise
Employers were clear that this is the exception rather than the rule, but sometimes flexibility can be misused or might not work for the business or the team. Employees may manage the shift system so it is regularly to their advantage and other employee's disadvantage. Poor performance may not be visible initially if employees control their own hours or are working from home. They may claim more hours than worked or than the job justifies.
Warning signals of potential problems are typically found in patterns of behaviour rather than one off incidents. Employers found that they were usually associated with other issues such as poor performance or personal problems, rather than just a misuse of flexibility. Problems are signalled by the attitudes or comments of the person involved, or of their colleagues towards them, or sometimes the employer just has a gut feeling.
When they suspected a problem employers found it useful to start by watching more carefully and asking pertinent questions. They found that generally if people knew they were being watched, the problem was rectified.
Fix it while it is still small. Ask questions early. Send the signal that you are keeping an eye on things.
When that isn't enough, a direct conversation may be needed to:
- discuss your concerns
- provide an opportunity for the employee to respond
- clarify what your expectations are and what they need from you to help them
- identify what steps you and they will take to meet those expectations and when this should be done by
- identify how you will follow-up in the future to ensure your and the employee's expectations are met
It is important to remember that as an employer your responsibility throughout the relationship is to ensure that you are making decisions fairly and consistently. A Department of Labour publication, 'An Employer's Guide to Employment Relationships' illustrates some good processes in how to identify, deal with and prevent problems in employment relationships.
Other publications about employment relations can also be found on this site.
Avoiding overload as the owner or manager
For some business owners and managers providing flexibility for their employees has provided them with flexibility in return. For others however, staff flexibility has been possible because the owner or manager picks up the extra hours or commitments. Some see this as part of their job. Some like the sense of ownership and control this gives them.
Taking the additional load yourself may be necessary at certain stages of the business, for example in the early days or when times are tight. It may be okay at certain stages of your life when you do not have other commitments or when work is so exciting that you don't have the need for other interests. But there is a risk of overload. It may not be sustainable.
Managers and owners who have made flexibility work for both their employees and themselves, rather than at their own expense, have used the following strategies; They delegate.
Only way you can be flexible - if something happens, there has to be others who can deal with it.
Some find it useful to have 'rules' and structure about when they will spend time at work and with family or other commitments. They have learnt to redress periods of high intensity, with time off or reduced hours.
One owner of a very successful business who has successfully reduced his hours advises:
- Pick and choose your customers.
- Be clear about what days you are not going to work. His customers have responded well.
- Judge success on more than just financial returns.
These owners and managers find it helps to be open with their staff if they are under pressure, stressed or frustrated.
They have also put in place other avenues for support, both personal and professional e.g. business mentors or coaches.
Avoid setting it in concrete too soon
Employers have learnt to be wary about immediately agreeing to things on a permanent basis without the ability to review, check that it is working for everyone, and adjust arrangements as required. Make sure that this expectation is part of any initial discussions, any agreements and any documentation.
Things aren't static - they're always evolving. You need to be careful you don't trap yourself into a situation that no longer works.
Sometimes you have to say 'no'
Be clear about the constraints on how much flexibility you can offer. These may include providing cover for specific hours or areas of work. Constraints may be related to peaks in work demands, availability of suppliers or customer needs. Then you can figure out what flexibility is possible - where, how and when. Remember the way that things are usually done may not necessarily be the only way things can be done. For example one café found that it was fine to have one of their bakers come in earlier than normal so they could get to a regular sporting commitment.
Consider saying yes to requests for flexible arrangements, before you say no, but don't say yes too quickly. You have to think about the impact on others in the team. You have to think about the impact on the work. You have to think about the impact on the business and its customers. There will be times you need to say no.
I had to learn that sometimes the things you would like to provide for your staff as a human being - because you know about their issues and you respect them - are not possible for the business to do.