Guide to flexible working

Flexible working is an adaptable resource for SMEs that can help build an engaged workforce and enhance productivity.

According to Kate Nowlan, chief executive of CiC Employee Assistance, flexible working doesn’t have to be a strain or a drain on the business. Here she takes a look at how it has worked in her own organisation and considers how it could work for you too.

CiC has a core staff of 38 people and given that 74 per cent of the workforce is female, we’ve naturally had a number of flexible working requests that relate to motherhood and childcare. But adopting such a narrow definition of flexible working can be restrictive for a business and it’s important to acknowledge that flexible working now goes beyond this to include accommodation for employees with caring responsibilities for a relative, partner or friend who needs their support because of age, sickness or disability.

From April 2014, flexible working requests will also cover further education courses and other professional qualifications, which gives us as employers a greater opportunity to strengthen our relationship with employees. At CiC, one-third of flexible working requests already relate to education and training and even though not all of the courses that employees have enrolled on have been professional programmes, it’s been important to consider each of them on their own merit and, where possible, enable employees to flex their working hours to accommodate them.

In a report published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2002), SME employers expressed a number of concerns about introducing flexible working including the additional ‘red-tape’ resulting from legislation changes, as well as fears about falling employee productivity and managers finding it difficult to manage or administer the flexibility. Since this report was published, not too much has changed and often SMEs can get into a pickle with flexible working because they neglect to strike a balance between formal and informal permission for employees to work flexibly.

It’s true that adopting a positive attitude to flexible working doesn’t always require a formal strategy and processes. But as an employer, flexible working is also about recognising that we all, as individuals, have busy lives that require a lot of juggling. Helping employees to do this and fit work around personal commitments and vice versa can pay massive dividends in the long run. Enabling an employee to work from home, for example, because they’re expecting a delivery or a visit from a tradesman means that when you ask them to go the ‘extra mile’ in the office or stay behind for an additional client meeting, they’re more likely to give back to the business and as a result help ensure its success.

Yet formal procedures and agreements are fundamental, especially when it comes to longer-term flexible working agreements. Here it’s crucial that each application is assessed against a standard set of criteria that’s openly communicated with and available to all employees, such as the impact of the change on team members, key clients and the business as a whole.

As a manager you need to consider flexible working requests in relation to how they will impact on your business and how you can work with an employee and their team to make a change in working hours or days, or incorporate more time working from home. And it’s often the chance to discuss the options with employees before they submit a formal application that helps to create the best compromise for everyone involved whilst still ensuring a formal process has been adopted.

Flexible working works best in organisations that adopt a consistent approach to addressing requests and where employees are aware of your policy and how it’s enforced. It’s certainly something that’s here to stay so once your policy is established, you and your employees can begin to reap the mutual benefits of adopting a flexible attitude to work that will deliver long-term returns in engagement and commitment.

CiC is an employee assistance provider, specialising in trauma and critical incident management. For more information go to