Achieving the right balance: flexible working policies
AdeleKimber looks at how organisations are helping line managers to support theirstaff with flexible working policies‘It’sa good idea but it won’t work here’ is a common retort from managers confrontedwith a difficult task. And for HR professionals trying to promote a flexibleworking culture, it is the response they often hear from line managers facedwith making the policy work in practice. Newlaws giving staff with young children the right to request flexible workingpresents a double challenge for the HR profession. Beyond the obviousresponsibility to meet the legislation, HR teams have an opportunity to go beyondcompliance and deliver a flexible working strategy that improves theirorganisation’s competitiveness. Winning the hearts and minds of the linemanagers is a crucial part of that challenge.Linemanagers will be the first point of contact for most employees discussing aflexible working request. Research published on 25 March 2003 by lobby groupParents at Work, found that the request for flexible arrangements was put toline managers in 93 per cent of organisations, who either made the decision alone(46 per cent) or jointly with HR (50 per cent).Butresearch published last year by Roffey Park management school, argues that theprejudices of managers and those working full-time is still one of the biggestbarriers to flexible working. The report, Work-Life Balance: The Role of theManager, found that regardless of company policies, managers are likely to havethe most direct effect on the work-life balance of staff. “Whenmanagers feel empowered by the organisation to allow their staff flexibility,they tend to encourage their staff to work in such a way as to achieve personalas well as work goals,” says Roffey Park researcher, Claire McCartney. Shepoints out that many employees view the attitudes and behaviour of theirimmediate line manager as a good indicator of the culture of an organisation.Managers who feel the organisation does not give them the autonomy to makedecisions about how and when their team can work, are likely to be uneasy aboutallowing unusual arrangements, because they are simply not confident enough tomake the call.TheRoffey Park report argues that the single most important ingredient indeveloping and sustaining a culture supportive of work-life balance, is supportfrom the top of the organisation. MarilynTyzack, diversity specialist at the Work Foundation, agrees. She stresses thatensuring senior level support for flexible working policies is critical towinning line managers over. “It’s no good just having good policies in place –you must mean what you say,” she says.LloydsTSB diversity consultant Ryan Lynch, says that work-life balance is nowestablished as a business issue at the bank. This was only achieved bytop-level commitment to the cause and by the bank playing a part in talkingpublicly about its importance. Thebank’s Work Options scheme, which allows all employees to apply for flexibleworking, has been in place since 1999, and now one-third of the bank’s 76,000staff work flexibly.Atmotor giant Ford, leadership from the top is playing a part in establishing aformal flexible working policy. Annette Andrews, diversity manager responsiblefor work-life issues at Ford Europe, says the company recognised that employeesneeded flexible working arrangements, but the challenge was convincing linemanagers that it was a good idea. “Weput the business case into a strategy document arguing that the world of workis changing and we can use it as an opportunity,” says Andrews. Seniormanagement bought into the idea and Ford Europe is cascading the principle downthe organisation. TheParents at Work report, Right to Request, points out clear business benefits –such as cost savings and higher returns, improved service delivery, recruitmentand retention of staff and legislative compliance – as important factors tohighlight to managers.Tyzacksays that a pilot or trial period gives an opportunity to actually prove thesebenefits to line managers. Metrics gained from a pilot or a case study from elsewherein the business will help to build the case. “Ifyou want to have a policy that goes beyond compliance with the new legislation,you also have to be clear about the business needs. You have to measure thatand show how the business will benefit. Communicating those benefits clearlyand consistently to line managers is key,” she says.LloydsTSB has a website and an HR call centre providing information to line managers,but Lynch says it is always looking at new ways to engage them. A flexible workinginterchange site was launched last November to provide a forum for informationand discussion. “Ourjob is to give managers the tools to manage effectively. There will be somechanges in the process with new legislation, and part of the challenge for HRis to manage expectations of what this will mean in practice,” he says.Helpingmanagers to gain the right skills to cope with flexible working is a keyfactor. McCartney points out that many of the skills needed to manage flexibleworkers are good basic management skills. “Linemanagers need to be good at scheduling work and setting clear goals andtargets. Trusting staff and creating a culture that empowers them becomes evenmore important,” she says. MicrosoftMicrosoftstaff who want to work flexibly apply directly to director of people, profitsand culture, Steve Harvey (below), rather than to their line manager. Harveysays this ensures a consistent approach. “A lot of managers say noinstinctively so I am the first point of call,” he says.Harveyguarantees a one-week turnaround on a decision. Employees complete a simpledocument setting out their request, with details on the business reasons andhow they can support the arrangement. Harvey then discusses the request withthe local HR manager, relevant director and the employee’s immediate manager. Hesays that many of the difficult management issues surrounding flexible workinghave been eased by Microsoft’s Superteam concept, which was launched two yearsago and heavily implemented during the past year. Threeof the four levels of staff at the company have already been through thetraining process, beginning with the executives and their teams. Theidea of a Superteam, which can be a permanent, project or virtual team, is toset out clear expectations for the performance of all its members. At a formal team session, the leader sayswho they are, what they do and what they expect from the team. Each team thensets clear goals for each member, based on output, not the hours worked. Harveysays that the drive to create a flexible working culture has made ideas such asthe Superteam even more important.“Thereis a clear contract with an employee setting out what they are expected todeliver. The approach makes it much simpler to manage people who are workingflexibly,” he says. SouthOxfordshire CouncilLinemanagers at South Oxfordshire District Council are taking part in trainingsessions to understand the council’s drive to create a flexible workingculture, and how its policies dovetail with the new legislation.Thecouncil introduced an annualised hours scheme at the beginning of the year in abid to help its staff balance their work and home lives. “Somemanagers, particularly those running frontline services have had some concernsabout how the scheme will operate, and it is the line manager who has to agreeany new pattern of working. We want to encourage staff to talk through newworking patterns with their colleagues,” says the council’s head of HR, TrevorHill (pictured above).Eachemployee is now contracted to work a specified number of hours per year,instead of measuring working time over a week. Hill says the move gives thecompany’s 250 staff more freedom to change their working arrangements to suittheir home lives. Flexible working options available as part of annualisedhours include term-time working and nine-day fortnights. Partof the training includes setting up case studies so line managers are moreaware of the positive aspects of being more flexible, and can see how it worksin practice.Hillsays most of the benefits to staff in the first three months have beenshort-term ad hoc benefits, and staff now feel more comfortable asking for timeoff. FordEuropeWork-lifeworkshops, run by the senior managers of each business unit, were used by FordEurope to kick-start its flexible working policy. Many of the motor giant’semployees have worked flexibly for some time, but the company launched a formalpolicy late last year. “Theworkshops were used to say to line managers ‘we are empowering you to work withteams to improve their work life balance’,” explains diversity manager, AnnetteAndrews (pictured below). Avariety of communication tools are used to promote the idea – an in-house magazine,websites and the company’s in-house TV station all run information on flexibleworking, and include role models and interviews with people working flexibly.“Wehave worked hard to make line managers as aware as possible of the policies,”says Andrews. Managershave access to a toolbox setting out just how to manage and implement policies,such as the practicalities of managing staff who are telecommuting, or how tomake an employee part-time. Andrews says the toolbox helps line managers fullyunderstand and take ownership of their employees’ working arrangements.Aflexible working pack is published which duplicates information available onthe web. Both include an application form that helps staff to set out why theywant to work flexibly, how they will make the new arrangements work, and how itwill impact on the business. The aim of the form is to create a structuredconversation between an employee and their manager.Flexibleworking is not yet on offer for manufacturing staff, but it is planned for thisyear. “It will be very challenging to get the degree of flexibility that wewant in a shift environment on a production line,” says Andrews. Previous Article Next Article Related posts:No related photos. Achieving the right balance: flexible working policiesOn 1 Apr 2003 in Personnel Today Comments are closed.