So it’s half term and harassed working parents everywhere are gearing up for a difficult week ahead. But while the school holidays are undoubtedly hard for employees trying to juggle the demands of work and family, the conversation of flexible working can pose a real challenge for businesses, too. There are often conflicting demands from staff for time off and accommodating everyone’s requests isn’t always possible if you’re to keep the wheels turning and meet client needs.

It’s at times like this when flexibility comes to the fore. A little bit of give and take over start and finish times or the ability to work at least part-time from home can go a long way towards reducing stress levels all round and making sure the important work gets done – and this is were flexible working comes in.

SMEs have traditionally held a somewhat negative attitude towards flexible working. Research suggests that in fact only 14 per cent of small businesses allow their staff to work flexibly or from home. This reluctance to move away from conventional ways of working is typically down to concerns about setting a precedent (we can’t let everyone do it) and issues around trust (if we can’t see them, how do we know they are working?) 

In today’s fast moving and competitive world this isn’t an attitude SMEs can afford to take. In a global, 24/7 business environment flexible working isn’t a soft fluffy employee benefit – it’s an approach that can give businesses a real commercial advantage.

It makes it easier, for example, to work across different time zones or to provide a service to customers at times when they need it. It can also help businesses attract and keep hold of talented staff they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. It’s estimated, for instance, that 3.5 million women in the UK are available for professional part-time work.

There are tangible cost savings too. Figures from specialist recruitment consultancy Ten2Two suggest that scheduling a job across a four day week can result in a 20 per cent salary cost reduction, while a role based on a five hour day can save up to 33 per cent on salary.

Take all those factors into account, and suddenly flexible working starts to look like a more attractive proposition. What’s really interesting, however, is that despite their avowed dislike of flexibility, scratch beneath the surface and you find that most small businesses are actually doing it to some degree anyway.

Fred in Finance comes in late every other Friday so that he can take his elderly mother to a regular hospital appointment – but works through his lunch to make up the time. Maria in Marketing works remotely one afternoon a week, juggling her appointments so that she can pick her children up from school on the nanny’s day off.

Unofficial but highly effective arrangements, negotiated individually within teams and kept track of in the team calendar in your HR software. The job gets done, employees are grateful (and therefore more likely to remain loyal and engaged), the business benefits all round – but no-one talks about it openly for fear of opening the floodgates.

So let me ask you: Do you know how much flexible working is really going on in your business? Have you analysed roles to see how many jobs really need to be carried out strictly Monday-Friday 9-5? Have you worked out what benefits a more flexible approach would bring – both in terms of cost savings and opportunities for growth?

Do get in touch with your views and experiences (and if you need me this week, you’ll find me in the foyer of my local cinema with a coffee and my laptop).

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.