Flexible working: what practice managers need to know

shutterstock_190732964Change in the flexible working regulations has made things more difficult for working mothers. Contracts can be written flexibly to be fair to both parties – Kate Russell discloses how.

It is generally accepted that there’s a life outside work and we all benefit from a balanced lifestyle. Reports suggest the number of working mums who work flexible hours has more than doubled since 2003 with a significant reduction in those who change employer on returning to work. But there’s good news and bad news when it comes to the statutory right to request flexible working.

First the bad news. There is no one-size-fits-all flexible working Nirvana. The good news is that with clear communication and some give and take by both employer and employee, a sensible solution can usually be found. In this article we reflect on how best to achieve flexible working in a way that works for working parents, employers and other employees.

Returning to work

Perhaps we should consider what the right to return to work after having a baby and the statutory right to request flexible working mean in practical terms.

In the late 50s it was commonplace for women to be dismissed or expected to resign once they were married, never mind pregnant. It was a scandal and quite properly legislation followed that started the long process to greater equality. The right not to be dismissed for a reason connected with pregnancy or maternity and the right to return to work have made pregnant or recent mothers the most strongly protected category workers in UK employment law. Women had the right to choose to return to work, but it was for the individual to decide if she could cope with the very different demands of the workplace.

The social and economic changes that have encouraged so many to return to work while their baby is still very young, coupled with the right to work flexibly, have in some quarters set up unrealistic expectations. Employers can only do so much. Freelance journalist (and working mother) Antonia Hoyle wrote in The Telegraph (29 June 2014) that mothers must: ‘…. realise that, whether we like it or not, motherhood will affect our potential at work. We must learn to say no when we feel overwhelmed and stop beating ourselves up when our efforts fall short of perfection. We must be honest with our employers – and ourselves – about how much time we can devote to work. … Accepting our limitations is the only way we will keep our careers, our families and our sanity intact.’

What can employers do?

But what employers can reasonably do, they should. The legislation grants the right to request flexible working, but not to demand it and it can be refused. It’s important to understand that in some cases flexible working isn’t possible and the refusal does not constitute sex discrimination. So what can employers do? Here are my tips.

  • Think through your approach to flexible working and consider what you want to achieve
  • Agree and publish a flexible working policy to avoid confusion and ensure consistency. As part of this, identify champions of the process. Respond to those with concerns and convert them. As part of this set realistic expectations about reasons for refusal of flexible working requests. Be clear about how you will handle and resolve conflicting requests. Be realistic so that the policy can be implemented successfully. This takes planning and consultation and a phased approach is advisable
  • Work as a focussed management team to facilitate flexible working requests. This involves communication and consultation with all staff
  • Train managers to manage flexible workers, and train flexible workers how to self-motivate and manage themselves
  • Properly explore all flexible working requests in a timely fashion. Good communication solves most problems. Know and discuss the issues you’re likely to face: set up accountability with the employee and give regular feedback on activity
  • It is sensible to build in checks and balances. For example, a review after three months with a view to refining or amending the arrangement to ensure it works for all parties
  • If a request is turned down, give written business reasons
  • Monitor requests for flexible working and track how they are working in practise.

Flexible working practices will vary from organisation to organisation and will continue to change over time. Provided you plan properly the benefits of a well-managed programme can be enormous.

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