[Podcast] Flexible Working by Default – a Discussion

Posted in : HR Updates on 17 January 2020
Mairéad Regan
Clarendon Executive
Issues covered:

Interviewer: Welcome to the "HR Bitesize Podcast" series in conversation with Clarendon Executive. Clarendon Executive works with companies across Northern Ireland to help maximise their leadership capabilities across all aspects of the employment lifecycle from executive search through to organisational and staff development.

Clarendon's expertise spans the private, public, and third sectors. The firm focuses on identifying talent at board and senior executive level across the management disciplines. This includes, for example, general management, commercial marketing, digital and operational effectiveness, and leadership roles, such as operations, finance, risk compliance, technology, and human resources.

Today, we are joined byHugh McPoland and Mairéad Regan, associate consultants at Clarendon Executive.


Hugh has a considerable track record in organisational change along with substantial knowledge and experience in assessing the leadership credentials of directors across the public sector.

Mairéadspecialises in post-hire executive development and senior executive performance and progression. Previously Group HR Director atUTV Media plc,Mairéad hasmore than 25 years' experience in human resources at a senior level.

This podcast is a must-have lesson for any HR manager or director, covering hot topics such as flexible working, menopause in the workplace, dealing with challenging behaviours, etc. Our easy-to-digest format makes these short but informative podcasts perfect for listening to at leisure in the car or during your lunch break.

Flexible Working by Default?

In this podcast, we're going to talk about flexible working. In a bill making its way through parliament, employers could be forced to make old jobs flexible by default rather than putting the onus on employees to request flexibility. So do you agree that all jobs should be considered up for flexible working by default?

Mairéad: I think it's an improvement on how things have been. I think, historically, when you look at flexible working, it would have been seen as the domain of mothers and parents of young children. And that was sort of a very discrete group of individuals. Then the law changed where it became open to everybody.

But the CIPD have reported in the last 10 years really the number of requests for flexible working have plateaued, because there almost was . . . as you say, employees had to request it. It was a very formal structure. Employees had to prove how they could make it work. So there was almost a trust issue between the employer and the employee.

Flexible working is now available to everyone, and I think flexible working has gone from being a very formal, formulaic approach to, "Will this job work, etc." to, "Let's see if we can make it work.So let's see."

So I think if it becomes available to everyone and it becomes something that is an option that's considered as part and parcel of every job, there will be more creativity. There will be more openness in terms of "How can we make this work?"

There are certain jobs probably where it will be incredibly difficult, but I think taking an approach so that the bill in parliament is going to take means that the starting point is "Can we make it work?" as opposed to, "Well, we've never done it this way before and it's not doable".

And I think if there's compromise on both parts, there may be some areas where work design will allow a job to be a little bit more flexible. It may not be the full remit of what the individual wants, but there could be some compromise.

So I think it's a positive move, but the risk with it is that it raises expectations that if it becomes part and parcel of every job, then I will get it. Whereas the reality is, I think at the moment, CIPD have reported that one in three requests are turned down. And I think it's only one in seven jobs currently advertise flexible working as an option.

So we're a long way off from that point, but I think the mind-set is right to try to open it up so that employers will see it more as something that should be considered as opposed to, "Let's wait and see if somebody requests it".

Are Certain Roles Not Suitable for Flexible Working?

Hugh: I think that that's absolutely valid. My concern is that I think there are some jobs which are not entirely flexible, and it strikes me . . . I think flexible working is primarily a white-collar construct, where it is easy to do in terms of knowledge, computer-based work, and office-based work.

When I think of flexible working in, say, education, I'm not sure how a teacher can teach on flexible hours where children arrive at whatever time they arrive at, half eight, 9:00 depending on the school, and they leave at 2:00, 3:00, half three,depending on the school. To what degree of flexibility can you give a teacher in that regard? I'm not sure.

As a parent, I would have wanted a continuity of teaching. And I listened to something my family, my wider family, who are deeply concerned that when, particularly in primary six, teachers will go off for maternity and even paternity leave just as students are coming to an important event in their life.

So, in principle, yes, they can. But I think there has to be some view as to what the impact that is on the service that's being provided in the like of an education sector.

Equally, in some of the care environments where I have tend to come from, flexible working is available for just about everybody, but it is within the total number of hours worked. But if you're a nurse in a hospital, you tend to have to be in the ward at particular hours. Now you can reduce your hours, you can increase your hours, and there's a degree of flexibility around that. So some of the jobs are flexible, but in a very constrained sort of way with the hours of work.

Other jobs, particularly in office environments, you can agree with people, "Yeah. Okay. You can work from home". I know lots of managers who that phrase sends shivers down their spine about working from home. But that is possible.

So it's very much about the context and the environment. In office environments, I think, absolutely, there is no job that's not . . . you cannot have quite a comprehensive range of flexible working practices.

In others, the examples that I used, education and health are just two, but in the private sector, if you are manufacturing stuff, you probably need to have your staff in the factory, pressing the machines, running the factory line within very constrained hours of work. So, in some contexts, it's not possible, but in other areas, and particularly as you move away from the manufacturing environment.

My wife's worked for manufacturing, etc. I fully appreciate how important that is to the economy, but our economy is changing away from manufacturing and likely to do so more in the future. But in that knowledge environment and to that computer tech environment, flexible working is I think going to be the default position. But in other sectors, it may not be.

Broader View of Flexible Working

Mairéad: Yeah, I think you're right, that the context in which the individuals are working is really important. So when you talked about the health sector there, I mean, you can't tell people not being there. It's all about touch points. It's all about being out in the community or being visible.

But I think flexibility in that context is more about predictability. So where an individual says, "I can only work on a Wednesday and I can only work on a Friday", their working arrangement will accommodate that. So that is flexible working, but it's not in the traditional sense of you can work from home or we're going to reduce your hours.

So I think that's why flexibility now needs to be seen in its broadest sense, because traditionally, it might have been, "Can you work from home, and can you have a Friday off?" whereas now there's a much wider range of options.

When you talked about with horror, when people hear the words . . . when line managers hear "working from home", I think there's a piece of work that needs to be done in terms of dispelling some of the myths about home working and dispelling the myths of what flexible working looks like.

So I think it's really important in an organisation to pilot some of these arrangements and then feed back the successes, but also learn from the negative points. Because you're absolutely right. Things may be tried, but don't work for the business. And this has to work both for the employee and the employer.

So it's about starting something with a genuine commitment to give it a good go, but also a review point which, "Has it worked? Has it not worked? What are the learnings from it? Do we need to tweak it? Do we need to change it so that everybody benefits from it?"

Importance of Mutual Flexibility

Hugh: I think that's absolutely right in terms of it has to work both ways. If I could use two examples where managers weren't adept enough to work flexibly. And I've heard stories in hospitals where people have come along and said, "I would like to work 21 hours a week because that suits my predictable life pattern". And the manager says, "Well, my job is only for 19 hours". And particularly in a crisis situation, which the health sector is in, we can't get staff. It is not very wise to say, "No, you can't have 21 hours". So managers can be quite thrown about that.

But equally, I've heard where a manager has provided three staff with flexible working, working-from-home type arrangements. And on one occasion, all three staff were out of their office in their flexible working arrangements, but he needed to have someone to come to a meeting. All three refused to do it. Now, that manager walks away with from that experience thinking, "Well, I'm not going to be caught out again.

So it's really important that flexible working is a two-way street for the organisation and for the employee. I think that's a really valid point you make in terms of making sure.

So many people say, "I need time off to do whatever", or, "I need flexible working". Equally, organisations need to say to someone, "I need you to be here an extra half hour today for a telephone call", or whatever, and that's the key touchstone.

It also reminds me of when we first introduced term-time working, and we actually trialled it. And we made a mistake actually in the first year in that we reached into someone's contract to term-time working, which effectively gave them term-time working until their children were 18.

And the next tranche of people the following year said, "Can we go on term-time working?" And we suddenly realised, "We can't have everybody working term-time. Stuff needs to be done". And we had to turn down for good business reasons the second tranche.

So what we learnt very quickly was for term-time working, we would grade on an annual basis. So, every year, we sort of said to people, "If you're interested in term-time, you need to start talking about that around February, March", because it's all about schools. So we can get it all planned and sorted come the summer and starting the new school year.

So I think there are lots of flexible arrangements which need really careful management. And in many ways, workforce planning is too strong a word, but a workforce scheduling to make sure that there's someone there in the business, depending upon the sector.

Engaging for Flexible Working

Mairéad: So there is an education piece, I think,in terms of what good practice looks like, what the barriers could be, and how you're going to overcome those barriers, but very much about the learnings from it.

I mean, that's a really good example of done with the best of intentions. That employee was probably delighted to have her contract changed. But the impact on the individuals who came along next would be . . . well, they could resent that. And so you've somebody who's disengaged and somebody who said, "Well, I thought I was going to join this because they have term-time working and that's the reason why I joined this organisation". So you have to handle the outfall of all of that as well, which is an issue.

As well as educating line managers, I think there's something about the other team members. In some cases, there can be . . . not a resentment, but sort of, "Well, it's all right for them. They're working from home. It's all right".

So it's almost like the team need to buy into it so that there is a communication exercise to be done around, "This is what we're introducing. We're introducing flexible working for this individual. This is how we're going to cover the gaps", or, "This is how this individual is going to ensure that they are carrying out their workloads", so that there isn't this underlying resentment which isn't ever expressed but affects the culture, that, "We're carrying her workload or we're carrying his workload because he's off on a Friday".

So there is a piece of work, as well as with the managers, with the entire team.

Hugh: Yeah, absolutely. That word engagement keeps coming back into our conversations.It's about working with the workforce to make sure everyone understands what the deal is and what the consequences are. And those people that have that benefit of flexible working sometimes have to recognise that there are times when they have to . . . not forsake, but to be flexible the other way just to help the organisation out.

You're right. Particularly when we first introduced it, there was a sense. And I have to say it's mostly men who were saying, "Flexible working? Yeah, that'd be nice to be sitting at home all day watching the television, daytime TV". And we know that's not true. Most of the time.

So I think you have to manage that. It's not just about having flexible working, you can come and go, you can work at home and not work at home, you can use technology. It's about understanding what the productivity implications are, and what the objectives of the organisation are, and be clear about that and not just be a good employer and provide flexible arrangements, but understanding what the impact is.

Impact of Flexible Working on Recruitment

Mairéad: But I think employers now need to use that as a tool to attract and retain people, because there's an expectation certainly with younger workers coming into the marketplace or are at their early stage of their career that that will be something that's on offer. It's almost a given now. "What are your flexible working terms?"

So I think if employers want to attract the widest pool of applicants and to be seen as, you know, an engaged and a supportive and a committed employer, they need to be offering flexible work and they need to genuinely consider it. And that needs to be more than having a policy. That needs to actually live and breathe it and have that culture. You know, have it literally working it so that people can see that.

Interviewer: But Isuppose, from what you're saying, Hugh, the policy needs to be very clear that flexibility is a two-way process, that just because an employee gets to either work at home or to work part-time doesn't mean that they become rigid in those hours, that the employer would have the right to . . .

And I think that possibly needs to be made clear in the policy so that people understand that they have to not all the time, but occasionally perhaps adjust their hours or work on a different day or . . .

Hugh: But the key thing is about the occasional nature of that, because if you do that every week with someone who's on flexible working, that's just nonsense. And occasionally when a crisis hits . . . and my experience has been that most people do respond to those sorts of crises and do commit to an organisation. Occasionally, they don't. But there has to be an understanding that there may be times when we do really need you here rather than working at home or a slightly different working pattern from the rest of the workforce.

Interviewer: So, in terms of the employer, I suppose managing flexible working within the context of recruiting and retaining the best talent and at the process where they are analysing the job role, perhaps redrafting job descriptions, personnel specifications, at that point, should they be considering whether it can be worked flexibly or how it could be facilitated within the role?

Mairéad: I think best practice would certainly say yes, because what has tended to happen is once the person is in the role and if they've been in the role for a period of time, they then find that the work/life balance is either out of sync or they can't manage all of their commitments. They then go to the employer and say, "Can you look at this?"

That's very different from the very early stage where the job design has been looked at, and the job description has been looked at. And I think if it's worked on at that stage, then the likelihood and the opportunities for flexible working will be increased. If the work is put in at that point, I totally agree that it should be done at that stage.

I think given how busy many organisations are, if somebody leaves, there's just a production line of pull out the job description and, "Let's just tweak it and move on". I don't think there is as much, "Actually, to get the best possible candidates, is there anything we can do here which would encourage more applicants?" So I think that's a very good point.

Hugh: AndI think also that it's not just about when you start to recruit. I think particularly large organisations who do workforce planning need to think about what's the potential uptick?

Workforce planners tend to think of full-time equivalents, and all of a sudden . . . and I don't think it's any secret, but if you take the medical workforce, for example, medical workforce problems are partly due to the fact that with the success of equality of opportunity in medical profession, there are more women in the profession at some point in their career that take the flexible working arrangements. That reduces your workforce capacity by half in some places. That puts pressure on those who remain. And your workforce planners should plan not for a one-for-one replacement in a period of time, but potentially a one-and-a-half or even two replacement.

Now, for big public sector organisations, they can probably cope with some of those excess costs. Private sector organisations, less so. But on an economy basis, someone needs to think about making sure that in the workforce plan . . . there are more men doing flexible working now than there's ever been, but it's predominantly female. When you plan and have a post of one full-time, 40-hour week, and all of a sudden it becomes a 20-hour week, where are you getting the other 20 hours to fill in?

And if you're in a professional organisation where it takes five or six years to train someone, that's a big issue in terms of capacity. So I think organisations need to think ahead, and the phrase I've always used is oversupply. If you're in that sort of organisation, training your own oversupply so that when flexible working hits you, you have the skills in sufficient quantity and number to actually continue with your success in your organisation.

Interviewer: Thank you for listening to the "HR Bitesize Podcast" series in conversation with Clarendon Executive. Further podcasts in this series are available at legal-island.com within the Employment Law Hub. Thank you.


This article is correct at 17/01/2020

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Mairéad Regan
Clarendon Executive

The main content of this article was provided by Mairéad Regan. Contact telephone number is +44 (0) 28 9072 5750 or email Mairead.Regan@clarendonexecutive.com

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