From today the right to request flexible working arrangements has been extended to all employees with 26 weeks’ employment.

It is a change which reflects existing practice for many employers.  This may be just as well as the new law is fairly toothless.  At first glance this seems disappointing – possibly a missed legislative opportunity.  But, on the other hand, forcibly imposing flexible arrangements on employers is unlikely to result in the best outcomes.  Agreeing to flexibility of time (when work is done) or place (where work is done) is not an end in itself.  An employer should genuinely want it to work.

Management is constantly told that it must embark on the quest for the twin holy grails of employee engagement and workplace diversity and inclusion.  These are cornerstones of high performance and profitability.   Flexible working arrangements can form a valuable component of this prize.  A diverse cohort of engaged flexible workers performing optimally as an integral part of a truly inclusive workplace is a tantalising prospect.  A workplace which allows flexibility and supports both personal and professional fulfilment is a noble (not to mention profit-making) goal.

But a flexible arrangement entered into without proper thought and planning (or even grudgingly) risks achieving neither engagement, fulfilment, nor a sense of inclusion.

True commitment in principle is the starting point.  Successful implementation in practice may require a bit more effort.  It will require management training around mind-sets as well as practical guidance and on-going support.  Without it flexible working can produce negative outcomes: disengagement and resentment – and not only for the worker themselves, but also within a team or business.  Without real commitment there is a risk that flexible workers will be, or will feel, side-lined, overlooked, and will be seen as (and feel) second class.

Top tips for managing flexible workers

  1. Start from the assumption that your flexible worker is as loyal, conscientious, dedicated and committed as your full time office-based staff.  Trust them.  Your treatment and management of them should flow from that.
  2. Keep talking.  You need to make a point of making time for quality two-way communication with flexible workers – face-to-face if you can (as you should with all staff – but particularly if you see them less frequently).  How is it going for them?  They may well be making personal/professional compromises in committing to the arrangement.  They may often have personal situations (e.g caring responsibilities) which have prompted them to request the arrangement in the first place.  Do you know what’s going on for them?  Would they feel able to talk to you about it if there was an issue?  Fundamentally engagement is about feeling connected and valued.
  3. Take them into account.  If you consistently arrange the team drinks on a day when an individual does not work… If you regularly book training for a time when they cannot attend (at least not without compromising their personal/family commitments)…  If you expect flexibility beyond what was agreed and show your disappointment when they cannot flex to meet your expectations…  What is the impact likely to be?
  4. Anticipate snags where possible (e.g maintaining client service levels).  Talk about them together and plan how to deal with them.
  5. Flexible workers still have career ambitions.  Will career development be impacted by the flexible arrangement?  Do opportunities tend to go to those with maximum flexibility?  Can you make sure that as much notice as possible is given to flexible workers so that they can make arrangements to take advantage of potential opportunities?  Think about role models.  Are there any flexible workers in senior positions?
  6. Manage the environment in the team.  What do the rest of the team feel about their colleague’s working arrangements?  What is the impact of the team’s attitude?  Resentment of flexible working arrangements is not uncommon, particularly where economic conditions mean others perceive they are being asked to do more with less.  Visibly demonstrate your support for the flexible working arrangement.  Role model the behaviours/attitudes you want to see in the team.

It may not be possible to accommodate all flexible arrangements all of the time.  The new law will increase focus on how competing requests are evaluated – no doubt with an eye on discrimination law.  Consider carefully how you will approach this.  ACAS has produced useful guidance.

Flexibility of time and place is likely to continue to rise as the 21st century workplace evolves and technology improves still further.  The potential business benefits are enormous and there is a growing body of evidence to support this.  But saying yes to a request isn’t the end of making it work.  It is the beginning.  Mature management will give it some serious thought.