Three ways to make it easy to talk about flexible working

Flexible working is back in the HR headlines – this time with a report from Aviva that suggests more than one in five UK private sector workers are afraid to discuss the issue with their boss.

The recent ‘Working Lives’ report shows that 21% keep silent because they assume their request will be denied – although interestingly, the survey suggests their fears may be unfounded. Out of those who asked, the majority (79%) had their request accepted.

It’s been a very slow process, but the idea of flexible working is now much more widely accepted within the corporate world. The business case is clear – more engaged, productive employees who, at a time when organisations are battling for the best talent, are more likely to stay (63% of staff in the survey said they were more likely to stick with an organisation that offered flexible working).

flexible working

The practicalities are also pretty much sorted. Advances in technology have made it much easier for employees to work remotely – and in an increasingly fast-moving, global business environment, flexible working means that companies can be available for their customers 24/7 if needed.

There is, however, still some way to go. In the Aviva survey, 34% of businesses said they did not offer flexible working options at all. Sometimes this is because flexibility just doesn’t work for the business or the role – there will always be companies who need staff to be physically present, during conventional office hours. But as the reluctance among some employees to even raise the subject shows, there are still pockets of managerial resistance and places where the culture hasn’t fully embraced the concept.

So as an HR practitioner or front-line manager, what can you do to smooth the path for flexible working and create an environment where the issue can be openly discussed?

1. Encourage open conversation

Managers often shy away from having open conversations with their direct reports. But if you want to get the best out of your people, you need to know what makes them tick, what their aspirations are and what they personally need to achieve a successful work-life balance.

Formal appraisals provide an opportunity to talk about working arrangements but don’t restrict the conversations to once a year. If you make it ‘normal’ to talk to people regularly about how things are going, employees are much more likely to feel comfortable about raising the subject of flexible working if they want to – and you will be able to have an open, constructive conversation, where the needs of both the individual and the business are equally considered.

2. Focus on the business benefits

In some working environments, flexible working is still very much seen as a ‘personal’ thing. Employees often feel they are asking for a big favour – or even that they should be apologetic – about their desire to work flexibly. This will only change if both parties shift their focus to the business benefits of any proposed new working arrangement.

Yes, of course, people will often have pressing personal reasons for wanting to work remotely or make a change to their hours – maybe a heavy caring responsibility or a desire to pursue an interest outside of work. But it’s equally important to talk about how a more flexible approach to their role will work for the business. Will a change to working hours speed up customer response time, for example, or will it help to get projects over the line quicker if employees can have concentrated, uninterrupted working time at home? If the benefits on both sides are acknowledged, the conversation becomes more comfortable.

3. Be transparent and get the support of the team

People are often reluctant to ask for flexible working because they are worried about how their colleagues will react. Will their peers think working from home is just an opportunity to take it easy? Will they become invisible – or be deliberately left out of meetings or important conversations – if they are not present in the office as much as previously?

Talking openly about flexibility with the team is key. People need to understand how it will work in practice, how work will be managed and distributed and how everyone will communicate. There are many tools available to support flexible working. Open team calendars, for example, which come as an integral part of many HR software systems, are a great way to improve visibility across the team of who’s available when. Internal social portals also make it easier for people to share information and work collaboratively, wherever they may be. Fairness and transparency are critical.

Bad feelings can quickly arise if employees feel that some people are being treated more favourably when it comes to flexibility. Make sure you are treating everyone equally – and that if you have to turn a request for flexible working down, that you are very clear about the reasons why.

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