Another week, another industry award – and this time the search is on for the top employer for working families.

Now the arguments for being a flexible, family-friendly employer are well-rehearsed. Access to a wider talent pool. Engaged and loyal employees. Better performance and productivity. But the reality is that for an SME, it’s not always quite that simple.

There will always be those businesses who quite simply need staff on the ground, ready to deliver the goods or service, Monday to Friday 9-5 (or whatever their core hours of operation might be). However supportive of family friendly principles they are, flexibility is only going to work for them in practice to a limited degree.

The situation is of course quite different for SMEs whose workforce is made up primarily of knowledge workers. Thanks to the advent of cloud computing, it’s possible for their people to access company data and systems and collaborate with their colleagues from pretty much anywhere at any time.

I’ve worked in the past for a knowledge-driven small business that could be described as a ‘family-friendly employer’ and was incredibly supportive of the concept of work-life balance. Part-time and flexible working arrangements were readily available. Home-based working was accommodated wherever possible. There was a sympathetic and supportive approach for employees who found themselves faced with the occasional child-care crisis, elder-care emergency or general domestic disaster.

The company took the view that its success and future growth was in the hands of the talented people it employed – and that it would do its utmost to keep hold of those folk by allowing them to organise their working life in a way that suited their family or personal circumstances. It was a great place to work and employees returned the compliment with high levels of commitment and a willingness to go the extra mile when required.

Balancing the needs of people over business

There’s no doubt, however, that even in this type of SME there are times when what’s best for the people isn’t necessarily best for the business. Clients can get frustrated (or confused) by a myriad of different working arrangements. Teams don’t gel as well as they might if everyone was in the same room. Resentment can set in among usually supportive colleagues if they have to pick up the slack one time too many.

Of course there’s also that unwritten rule that says personal emergencies are most likely to arise at business critical moments. A project deadline is looming or there’s an important new business pitch coming up and all of a sudden a key member of staff is asking if they can leave early/come in late/take a few days off so that they can deal with whatever missile life has thrown at them.

The problem is that in a small business, the contribution of every single employee counts. It’s not always that easy for someone’s work to be picked up by a colleague, for example, either because no-one else knows the detail of the job or because everyone is already stretched to full capacity. If being a ‘family-friendly employer’ isn’t managed carefully, or it’s taken too far, standards can start to slip and there’s a real danger there will be a corresponding impact on the bottom line.

Swing and a miss?

Now before you raise your hands in horror, I’m not suggesting for a moment that SMEs should abandon their family friendly principles, throw flexibility out of the window and start taking a hard line with people who need to deal with family ‘stuff’.

What small businesses often do need, however, is a better understanding of how to make a family friendly approach work for their particular circumstances – and the confidence to make sure they are getting the balance right.

Talk to SMEs and you will find they have often let the pendulum swing too far in one direction.

Either they’re stuck in rigid working patterns and completely unable to see how things might be organised differently – or they are so keen to be seen as a family-friendly employer that they have let business considerations take a back seat.

I spoke to one HR manager recently who told me the business had lost a key female member of staff because a senior manager with entrenched attitudes wouldn’t allow her to shift her working times by half an hour so that she could get back in good time for the nursery pick-up.

At the very same event, another HR manager admitted that flexible working in her business had got so out of control that there were more than 100 different working patterns in operation and managers were frightened to say ‘no’ to any request.

It’s good to talk

As ever, confidence and communication is the key to getting on a more even keel and finding solutions that work for the people and for the business. SMEs need to deepen their knowledge, not just of the appropriate legislation, but also of the many different types of flexible working and the job roles each are most suited to. They need to help managers better understand the business case for flexible working so that they have the confidence to move away from out-modes ideas and practices.

The best family-friendly employers also need to open the lines of communication with employees – who after all know better than anyone what will work best on the front line. HR systems with a portal and workspace to allow conversations will be useful. Involve people in discussions about flexibility and work-life balance and not only will they be more accepting of whatever is decided – they are also likely to come up with some really innovative solutions.

Good luck if you’re entering the awards – and let us know what’s worked well for your business.

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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.