How flexible working can help your business reduce absence

There’s been mixed news on the flexible working front in the pages of the HR press this week.

The ‘bad’ news is that yet another major organisation has given the thumbs down to the concept of working from home.  Hewlett Packard has now followed in the footsteps of Yahoo with a directive from CEO Meg Whitman that she expects to see people working in the office.

It’s not the outright ban announced amidst a wave of negative publicity earlier this year by Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer – but a strong message that going forward, HP expects home working to be the exception rather than the norm.

Now both companies have their reasons for wanting to see jackets on the back of chairs.  They are both in turn-round situations and are clearly taking an ‘all hands on deck’ approach.  But the decision nevertheless seems incongruous at a time when thanks to technology it’s never been easier (and more cost effective for employers) for people to work from home.

Of course it’s not just larger organisations who can benefit from making home-working an option for their people.  Although there are many SMEs who will always need a 9-5 physical presence due to the nature of their business, there are just as many again who are benefitting enormously from having a more flexible workforce who can help them deliver the 24/7 service often demanded by customers.

There is, however, more positive news for advocates of flexible working in its widest sense in the shape of the CIPD/Simplyhealth annual absence survey released this week.  The findings show that the number of employers making changes to working patterns in an attempt to reduce absence levels has increased by 20 per cent in the last year alone.  Eighty-five per cent of employers reported they had adjusted working patterns and environments in an attempt to reduce long term absence, compared to 65 per cent in last year’s survey.

It’s a move that has clearly been borne out of necessity.  Statistics show that absence levels are once again on the rise, standing at an average 7.6 days per employee, with rates in the public sector peaking at 8.7 days per employee per year.

This move towards more flexible approaches certainly seems to be paying dividends.  Over 70 per cent of the organisations questioned said that introducing flexible working opportunities had had a positive effect on absence levels.  The same number had also seen a positive impact on motivation and employee engagement (HP and Yahoo may want to take note).

What’s interesting about the research is that it highlights that despite commonly held perceptions, extending flexible working doesn’t have to mean making large and disruptive changes.  Often, it’s the small tweaks that make the difference.  Allowing an employee to work 10-6 instead of 9-5, for example, could help employees better balance their responsibilities both in and outside of work.

Companies are often surprisingly reluctant to make these small changes.  I spoke to one woman recently who had left her job because her manager wouldn’t allow her to shift her working day by half an hour so she could pick her child up from nursery on time.

It’s this kind of attitude that can lead to a rise in valuable working time being lost to short term absence.  If people know a request for a bit of flexibility or the odd day working from home is going to fall on deaf ears, they are more likely to ‘throw a sickie’ so that they can deal with whatever situation has arisen.  It’s a serious issue.  Two thirds of lost working time is down to short-term absence, much of which almost certainly is less to do with genuine sickness and more to do with people trying to balance complicated lives.

Of course it’s not just those with childcare responsibilities who would welcome a more flexible approach from their employers.  As Dr Jill Miller, CIPD research adviser and co-author of the report points out:  “Changing demographics, including more people with caring responsibilities and the abolition of the default retirement age, means more people are looking to work untraditional hours.  It’s really important for businesses to recognise new ways of working to support a diverse workforce and retain talent.”

The CIPD research points out that line managers have an essential role to play in managing flexible working so that it both benefits the business and allows employees to meet the conflicting demands of their work and personal lives.  The key to success is to create an environment where employees can have open and honest conversations with their manager about the challenges they are facing, while also recognising that flexibility is a two-way street and they need to be adaptable too.

Look out for our next blog where we’ll share some practical tips on how to make flexible working a success in your SME – and do let us know what strategies and approaches have worked well for you.


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