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  • 21 January 2014
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Is flexible working beneficial for employers?

Yesterday marked the start of Work from Home Week 2014, which encourages businesses to explore flexible working and has been described as ‘an excellent opportunity for employers to encourage more working from home’.

Over the past few years, the topic of flexible working has become substantially more prevalent, with more and more employees now requesting to be able to work ‘flexibly’. Is this beneficial for employers though? And can employers trust their employees to work efficiently when they are out of the confines of the office?

Recent figures suggest that over four million employees are usually found working from home in the UK – an increase of 13% compared to five years ago.

Commenting on Work from Home Week, Simon Cliffe, organiser of the week, said:

“The whole subject of working from home hit the headlines recently when the new Yahoo boss banned all her employees from doing it – and that caused outcry on the blogosphere proving the subject is something people care passionately about.

“Working from home can be an attractive alternative that can get around many of the stresses and strains of office life. Home working can offer the flexibility that doesn't usually exist in full-time employment, enabling you to fit work in around other commitments and allowing you to create a working environment that suits you and your working style.”

Is this to the detriment of the employer though?

Research published by the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) in 2013 suggests not. It revealed that a survey of over 1,000 managers found that flexible working is widespread, with 94% of UK employers offering it in some form.

Speaking on the benefits of flexible working, Charles Elvin, Chief Executive of ILM, said:

“Flexible working can offer real business benefits, as well as increased staff engagement. Over four out of five (82%) managers reported improvements in productivity, commitment and retention of staff, and 62% of managers said it helped their organisation respond better to customer needs.”

He continued:

“We also know from a more recent survey that workers are keen to improve their work-life balance this year (with 31% stating this was their top career New Year’s resolution). Allowing employees the option of working from home can be a powerful motivator and a great way to get the best out of people.”

Looking at other findings from the report, Mr Elvin added:

“Our report uncovered that the main barriers to flexible working are cultural, in particular the negative attitudes of a significant minority – for example, one in five worried that taking the decision to work flexibly could be ‘career limiting’ and a third (31%) reported hearing other colleagues saying something negative about others working flexibly.”

Offering advice to organisations, he stated:

“With flexible working becoming even more widespread in the future, organisations need to ensure their managers are ready, by embedding the appropriate skills for flexible working to flourish. This means that managers should be properly trained to know how to manage people working flexibly.

“We would also encourage managers to be open and honest about their flexible working policies which can alleviate worries and uncertainty and help to address the negative attitudes within their organisation.”

Clearly the debate surrounding flexible working has had an impact though - in 2014 we will see changes come into force that will transform the current law.

Originally it was thought that all employees who have at least 26 weeks’ service will gain the right to request flexible working arrangements from 6 April, however on 22 January 2014, the Government announced that it is now targeting 21 March 2014 as the date by which the new Children and Families Bill will be given Royal Assent, instead of early February 2014. As we know, a key provision of this Bill for employers is the extension of the right to request flexible working to all employees, not just those caring for a child or an adult in need of care. The delay to getting Royal Assent means that the Bill, which was expected to come into force on 6 April 2014, will now be delayed until “an appropriate date as soon as possible this year.” The Government is also set to abolish the “right to request” procedure, replacing it with an ACAS Code.

It is important to note that flexible working covers a wide variety of non-standard working arrangements including part-time hours; term-time working; compressed hours and home working.

The new ACAS Code will recommend that employers should approach all requests with a presumption they will be granted, however it will remain possible to refuse a request if there is a sound business reason to do so.

It has been reported that the business reasons on which a request can be refused include:

  • the burden of additional costs;
  • an inability to reorganise work;
  • an inability to recruit additional staff;
  • a detrimental impact on quality or performance or to meet customer demand;
  • insufficient work for the periods the employee proposes to work; and
  • a planned structural change to the business.

Another survey recently published found that 9.6 million work days are lost each year as a result of employees suffering from the ‘winter blues’ or Seasonal Affective Disorder, and the question that has to be asked is, would the option of flexible working prevent this from occurring? And if not, would it at least reduce the amount of working days being lost?

The survey of over 1,000 UK office workers, carried out by Opinium, on behalf of Epson, found that 20% of Brits admitted to calling in sick because of the winter blues and, on average, those that do call in sick, take off four days a year because of the condition.

Losing workers for four days a year because they are suffering from the ‘winter blues’ is hugely damaging for businesses and must be looked at by employers to ensure that this doesn’t continue to occur.

Would implementing a flexible working option for your business potentially improve absence rates? Do you agree with the majority of the ILM survey respondents and believe that flexible working will improve productivity, commitment and retention of staff? Or on the flipside, are you wholeheartedly against the idea of your employees working from home and adamant that it will never become part of your business strategy?

Our new forum discussion group poses all of these questions and is looking for people to explain their experiences of flexible working, both positive and negative.