Now that almost every employee in the UK has a right to request flexible working hours, should startups be fearing the worst? The answer, it seems, is absolutely not
Dolly Parton once sang “workin’ 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin’”. Little could America’s country music queen have known that 34 years later, she’d be performing her most famous song on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. Perhaps even more of a surprise was that her stint in the Somerset sunshine would be followed two days later by the rollout of a right to request flexible working to almost all employees in the UK. Whilst many would rightly regard this as a massive coincidence, we certainly couldn’t help but be struck by the timing of these two significant events.
Pop culture references aside, the legislation that came into force on June 30 is an important milestone for UK plc and the working population. A right that was previously only afforded to working parents and carers has been extended to the whole of the British workforce, with some very minor caveats. One thing’s for sure: it could well mark the end of the 9-to-5 day as we know it.
Of course, flexible working is hardly a new thing. Many companies have been enabling their employees to work in a way that fits their lifestyle for years. Syd Nadim, founder and executive chairman of Clock, the digital agency, implemented flexible working from the outset. “When I had a proper job, I just realised I wanted flexibility for myself and one of the reasons I called the company Clock is because the 9-to-5 approach to life is just breeding a culture where people are clock-watching,” explains Nadim.
Employees at Clock are free to arrive at 11am every day for a full day’s work and leave at 2pm on a Friday. Nadim admits he barely gave the latter policy a second thought. “To be honest, I just did it because it’s a good thing to do,” he says. “It turns out it’s good for business as well, which is great. Happy and fulfilled individuals perform much better and we’re able to recruit and retain the very best staff as a result.”
Nadim goes on to explain that a Clock employee takes on average 1.7 sick days a year – well below the national average. “That is the result of us giving people that space,” he says. Nadim firmly believes that a flexible working policy can work for any company where there’s a sufficient level of trust among staff. “With flexibility comes responsibility,” he says. “It’s not just a free-for-all but you should treat people as grown-ups and let them work it out between themselves.”
In an age where a decent salary is a bare minimum requirement, it’s hard to overstate the difference that flexible working can make to a company’s ability to both attract and hold on to talented workers. Healix, the global healthcare and risk management company, has reaped the rewards of its flexible working policy that was implemented from the very start by founders Peter Mason and Paul Beven. The firm offers eight different work patterns to its staff across the world and allows more than a third (37%) of its employees the ability to work from home. This lets people balance work with other responsibilities and activities like childcare, further education, job sharing, sporting interests and volunteering.
“The founders were very strong in their belief that people should not have unnecessary work restrictions placed on opportunities that are open to them,” says Kate Cleminson, HR manager at Healix. “As the business grew and we moved into some new sectors, it became very obvious that we would be able to attract a wider audience and skill set if we could offer some more flexibility.”
The impact it’s had on recruitment and retention at Healix is plain to see as far as Cleminson is concerned. “We have valued and committed individuals who have been with the company a long time,” she adds. “I am always impressed that people are often aware of the flexible working policy before they join us.”
Even the stats appear to support the positive impact that flexible working is perceived to have on organisations and their employees. A recent survey from Croner, the employment and HR arm of Wolters Kluwer, the information services company, assessed over 2,000 British workers’ views on flexible working. It revealed that – of the 60% of respondents who have or had worked flexibly – 63% believe they experienced a better work/life balance working under such a policy. Higher staff morale (42%), reduced sickness absence (28%) and increased productivity (27%) were also noted as significant upsides.
However, whilst flexible working may make perfect business sense for companies of a certain size – or from a certain sector – it won’t be a feasible option for some enterprises. These businesses can probably take some solace in further findings from the Croner report. It revealed that, of those employees who were already eligible for flexible working prior to June 30, 69% said they had never made a flexible working request. And of those who were ineligible prior to June 30 but now are, 60% said they were unlikely to submit a request.
That’s not to say small business owners shouldn’t prepare themselves for requests from employees. Fortunately, for those who aren’t able to offer flexible working, there are a number of reasons that can legitimately be given for turning down a request, all of which are listed in the legislation. It then becomes a question of letting workers down gently. “It’s worth recognising that if you say no, even if you’re entitled to say no, and even if you had really good reasons to say no, you’ve got an employee who is somewhat crestfallen, disappointed and maybe demotivated,” says Richard Smith, head of employment law at Croner. “If there’s really nothing that can be done, there has to be some careful explanation as to why it is that you can’t do it.”
Some business bodies including the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) have raised concerns that the legislation may give rise to employee tensions and discrimination claims in companies that already offer a degree of flexibility to their workers.
However, Will Burrows, head of employment law at Lewis Hymanson Small, the law firm, believes such concerns are unfounded. “Because of the wide scope for refusal, there are always going to be reasons upon which an employer can legitimately refuse,” he says. “But if it weighs the application in balance with the needs of the business in each individual case, the chances of indirect discrimination are very low.”
With modern technology meaning that workforces can now function from almost anywhere, flexible working is very much here to stay. And as far as startups are concerned, the opportunities that this presents should not be overlooked.
“Startups in particular need to be able to attract talent and this is one of the strongest ways they can do so,” says Ann Francke, CEO of the Chartered Management Institute. “It’s a better deal for people of all sexes and ages to have flexible working hours. If you give people something that meets their needs and helps create a positive culture, you are going to get more productive employees, and in the end everybody will win.”
Take a break
Jenny Biggam, founder of the7stars, the media agency, explains why she lets her staff take as much holiday as they need
People always said to us ‘you can only do that when you’re a certain size of business’. We have now grown the business to 100 people and have kept that policy exactly the same. Even with 100 people, it works. What we’ve done is take away the necessity, the paperwork and the red tape of filling in a form or registering on an HR system how much time you want to take off.
Everyone knows as a working professional roughly how much time you should be spending in the office versus how much time you should be spending on the beach. You don’t really need your boss to tell you how many days to take off and how it works.
In a big corporation, if you had a policy like that, certain people may think ‘how much time I take off will have no bearing on how much profit the company makes’. However, in an owner-managed business like ours, it’s easier because people realise that their contribution has a direct effect on the company’s future.