Research has shown that a growing number of businesses are switching on to the role flexible working can play in helping to reduce staff absence levels – ‘How flexible working can help your business reduce absence‘.

Flexible working is, however, still an idea often viewed with suspicion by many SMEs.  They are concerned about how they will manage with a mish-mash of different working arrangements and people coming and going at different times.  There’s a perception that customer service may slip, important work won’t get done – and that if they let a few people work flexibly it will open the floodgates.

There will of course be SMEs who need people to be physically in place because of the nature of their business, but there are many other businesses who could benefit enormously from a shift away from rigid working patterns.

So what can you do to reap the rewards of flexible working and make it a success in your business?

Consider the business case

Flexible working is often regarded as a ‘soft and fluffy’ initiative that only benefits the employee.  The reality, however, is that a more flexible approach to the way work is carried out can give your business real competitive edge.  It will allow you to attract and hang on to talented employees who might otherwise be heading for pastures new.  It enables you to work across different time zones and offer an extended service to customers and clients.  Employees who are able to strike the right balance with their work and personal commitments are also likely to be less stressed, more productive and loyal to the business.

Get line managers on board

Flexible working initiatives often fail because although the senior leadership in the business may be willing to embrace the concept, line managers are neither convinced nor engaged.  Those on the front line are often concerned about how they will manage the performance of people who may be working remotely, for example, and think that having a variety of different working arrangements will result in more time-consuming admin.  Making sure line managers understand the commercial benefits of flexible working and can see how it will enhance the performance of their department is key to success.  It’s also important to recognise that managers may need help reframing jobs and implementing flexible working in practice in their teams.  They won’t necessarily be up-to-date, for example, on the full range of flexible working options and how they can be applied to different job roles.

Involve employees

Open, honest conversations with employees will help to reinforce the message flexible working is a two-way street. Transparent discussions will help both parties understand each other’s needs and concerns and come to an arrangement which is beneficial all round.  Employees should be deeply involved in discussions about the practicalities of exactly how their role will operate in a more flexible environment.  They understand the intricacies of their role, know what will and won’t work and can often make great suggestions about how tasks can be approached in a more flexible and efficient way.

Trust people to do the right thing

Lack of trust is one of the biggest barriers to successful implementation of flexible working.  Managers worry that if people are not under their nose they may slack off or while away their time on Facebook or Ebay.  They are concerned that people will abdicate responsibility for work (‘it’s not my problem, I’m only here Mon-Wed’) or will fail to hand over tasks that need progressing to colleagues.  The reality is that people are usually so grateful for the opportunity to work flexibly that they will actually go the extra mile and make sure that whatever is important gets done.  If you trust people to do the right thing, they generally will.

Exploit technology

The latest technology can play a key role in supporting SMEs who have embraced flexible working.  Sophisticated HR software can help managers keep on top of working patterns and absence and can support them in managing the performance of their teams.  Some of the latest generation solutions (such as Cezanne OnDemand) also offer social portals which help employees who maybe working virtually share information, access documents and collaborate on projects.  There’s often a perception that these solutions will be expensive to buy and time-consuming to manage – but thanks to developments in technology, and particularly the advent of The Cloud, they are now within reach of even the smallest business.

Are you implementing flexible working in your SME?  What advice do you have to help other businesses who’d like to take a more flexible approach?

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.