almost 4 years ago by Cherry Swayne, Head of Sales

Flexibility At Work - "Don't talk about it too loudly. Everyone might want it"


Flexible working is an undeniably emotive subject. The newspapers and social media feeds are full of accounts of those who have had to leave their jobs as flexible working wasn't offered to them (over 54,000 women each year) and those who are struggling day after day to walk the tightrope of a work / life balance. Then there are those who have been given the privilege of flexible working but they are facing the resentment and scorn of their colleagues and their career progression has hit a roadblock. It seems hard to find any good news stories, or any companies who are getting it quite right. 

The first issue is that there is a clear disparity between the amount of people wanting flexible working arrangements and the amount of companies offering it as part of their recruitment process.

According to a recent survey by Timewise 87% of full-time employees either work flexibly already, or say they want to. However, only one in ten job adverts offer flexible working and only one third of companies raise the topic throughout the interview process.

Moreover, people are being actively discouraged from mentioning the "f" word throughout the interview and offer process for fear that it will negatively impact their chances of getting the job.

But why is this the case? Most employers say that they are prepared to consider flexible working, but they seem incredibly reticent to bring the topic up themselves. Perhaps for fear that everyone will want it.

This attitude shows that employers are still considering flexible working to be problematic. Something they will tolerate and work around if they have to, but definitely not something they'd like to see the majority benefiting from. 

It is also seen as something that is primarily required by women with young families, and some companies believe it can be avoided by limiting the hiring of women of such age. In fact, in a report by Slater and Gordon in 2015, 40% of employers said they would avoid hiring a woman of childbearing age. This way of thinking is so damaging for many reasons: Firstly companies are missing out on a huge pool of talented women who are willing to work incredibly hard to provide for their families and secondly, because by avoiding this particular demographic these companies are not avoiding the problem.

It isn't just mums who are demanding flexible working. In fact according to the Timewise survey childcare was only cited by 3 in 10 respondents as a reason to work flexibly. With an ageing population and people working into older age there is a growing demand for employees to care for their elderly parents, which can be difficult to manage around full time work. Also, many respondents just wanted the time and opportunity to pursue their own personal interests outside of work.

So why are companies so worried about this growing demand for flexible working? If anything, a more open-minded approach to flexible working could actually have a positive financial impact. According to the Government's capital and wellbeing report 2017, "the UK economy would be £165 million richer / more productive if all businesses got on board". Surely that's a good enough incentive?

The one issue that I hear regularly when discussing the issue of flexible working with businesses is trust. Managers and Directors are reluctant to offer flexible working from the outset, and want an employee to gain their trust before offering it as a privilege. Personally I would question whether their hiring process was robust enough if they weren't willing to place their trust in these new employees from day one. If companies had a more stringent recruitment process, which was tailored towards identifying people who could be trusted to work flexibly, then perhaps they would feel more comfortable offering it straightaway. Psychometric tests, effective on boarding programmes and setting clear, unambiguous objectives are all good ways to ensure that employees will be productive when working remotely. 

Another common objection is that it is difficult to manage employees who work outside of the office. Perhaps this concern reflects more on the quality of management style than on the issue of flexible working itself. As a country we have a problem with productivity and our long working hours as a nation show our focus on inputs rather than outputs. The employee who arrives in the office first and stays the latest looks far more committed than the one who leaves at 4pm and heads to a yoga class. However, we need to change our mentality to focus not on who was present in the office for the longest, but who achieved their objectives most efficiently. This change in management style may require an investment in retraining your management team, but overall it should lead to a more results-driven and theoretically, more productive environment which welcomes flexible working. 

So if we trust our employees to work flexibly from day one and we are confident that we can manage them effectively, then why wouldn't we encourage a conversation about flexible working from the outset of the recruitment process?

In an increasingly competitive recruitment market where talent shortages are rife, companies need to get creative to attract talent from their competitors. Considering 87% of all full-time employees either currently work flexibly or would like to, then a company stating on their job adverts that they are open to considering flexible working will be likely to lead to a higher volume of applications. A job advert offering flexible working is also likely to attract passive candidates who aren't actively looking for a new role, but would be tempted by the opportunity to work more flexibly. 

Offering flexible working is also cheaper than offering inflated salaries to attract candidates. In fact, a survey by My Family Care in partnership with Hydrogen Recruitment showed that 53% of employees would choose flexible working over a 5% salary increase. 

Finally, when employees have work that really works for them, and for their families, they are likely to be far more loyal to their employers. There has been much talk in recent years about employee retention and employee experience, but offering people a sensible working arrangement which benefits their health and happiness is the simplest way to ensure loyalty and reduce attrition.