Has flexible working become more flexible?

After the birth of my second son and subsequent maternity leave, I applied through the proper procedure to the HR Manager, (my line manager), to return to work on a part time, 3-day week basis. To my dismay and frustration, she refused stating that she needed me working 5 days a week to cover the workload. I had two boys aged 4 and 9 months so the expense of full-time child-care meant that my salary just about covered childcare fees, in addition, the office was 26 miles from home so a stressful time for all, getting the children dropped off and picked up within the nursery hours, whilst holding down a demanding job; a role that I loved and was at a level I had worked hard to achieve. Reluctantly I started filling in application forms. I soon received an invitation to interview with a local employer. Fortunately, I informed my manager of the reason for my holiday request and afterwards, I fed back to her how well the interview went. To my surprise and relief there was a realisation that my many years of HR experience was of value to the company. After six months of struggling as a full-time working mum, I was finally granted 3 days per week, and we employed a second HR Executive to share the load.


So why am I telling you this? As a part time employee, I carried on working for that company for another 20 years, growing with the business and eventually becoming the Senior HR Business Partner. The company retained my skills, experience and loyalty, and I gained a more balanced home/work situation. Also, once the children were at school, I was able to flex my days to suit the company’s requirements, and in return, I was able to swap my days to attend important school events. This was a win - win situation for both.


In my experience, pre-covid, as I have indicated above, it seemed a fairly simple process for the Company/Manager to decide whether or not to accept employee’s applications for flexible working – as requests were normally for part-time hours in order to care for children or dependent relatives, part of the week. There were occasionally requests to work from home in non-customer facing roles, but mostly everyone believed their tasks could not be completed at home.


So, I wonder, has the post Covid-19 new ways of working, made the kind of flexible working requests received by managers much more varied therefore making it more complicated for employers to manage? Are staff making requests that are very different from before? How have employees’ work/life balance expectations changed?


At the start of Covid-19’s first lockdown, employers found us a way to work from home, and some of us continue to do so. For most employees there were huge changes to their daily working life. For many it was a positive experience -they found themselves with more free time on their hands. There were no time-consuming commutes into the cities or industrial estates, and there were no longer the inherent commuting expenses. Parents spent more time with their children and loved ones, and childcare costs disappeared, or were reduced. Others spent more time in the garden or enjoying their hobbies.


However, for others, working from home was very stressful. I recently spoke to someone who has just left her well paid niche job because that role meant she continued to work all her hours from home, post pandemic, as her employer had shut their expensive city centre office. Once in lockdown her ‘office’ was in the open kitchen/diner/lounge area, and she (and her children during lockdown) were all working around the dining room table, which caused her much stress and continued to do so even when the children were back at school. Whilst she worked, she could still see the breakfast things in the kitchen, or the toys the children had not put away. For her, even more intolerable was the fact that she began to feel increasingly isolated from her from colleagues.


Of course, for some, home is a quieter place than the open plan office to work in as they can work solidly for 7 hours a day, 5 days a week, with no unscheduled interruptions. These employees probably do not want to return to the office.


I also know of a friend who recently put in a flexible working request, to compress her full-time hours into four days per week, to spend Friday with her daughter. There are two new situations here: only having to work in the city a couple of days per month, which prior to lockdown would not have even been an option, let alone requesting compressed hours because her working day would normal involve a long commute at the beginning/end of the day.


Some colleagues have made big changes in the lives of their families for example I know many have left towns and cities to live out in the countryside because work can be done remotely and, as I mentioned earlier, many European employees have returned to their home country due to Brexit and have left the organisation entirely.


It would seem that these scenarios have created new challenges for employers and HR departments. However, the UK government recently published a consultation paper on flexible working titled: ‘Making Flexible Working the Default, should flexible working be available from day one of employment?’ There now seems to be more pressure on an employer to accept flexible working for all, as the way forward. Is this an added burden for companies? In any event denying a request without reasonable consideration can lead to costly consequences. As recent case law proves when in Thompson v Scancrown Ltd (Trading as Manors) 2018, where an estate agent on £120k-a-year had a request to work four days per week rejected based on additional costs to the company. Thompson won an award of circa £185,000 as compensation for indirect sex discrimination.


Therefore, the employment landscape has certainly changed over the last 18 months and is still evolving. There is evidence of a skill shortage in some sectors. Therefore, employers are going to need to adapt and be even more proactive in workforce planning than they already are, to remain competitive whether locally, nationally or internationally. I believe that this can only be achieved by retaining your experienced and highly trained staff. The key to this going forward is to embrace flexible working to ensure there are a variety of ways of working within your organisation. Being known as a flexible employer will in turn, encourage young talent to apply to your company and for ex-employees to return to the company. It is clear that you avoid flexible working at your peril and potentially at great expense.


If your business needs some practical commercial advice on managing flexible working requests, get in-touch with me on 01202 138018 or email julie@auxiliumhr.co.uk and I will be happy to help you.


Article written by Julie Painter, HR Consultant at Auxilium HR Solutions

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