CIPD Podcast 75 - The right to request flexible working

Date: 05/02/13 Duration: 00:25:39

In this podcast Ben Willmott, Senior Public Policy Adviser, CIPD, Angela Williams, HR Director, British Gas, Audrey Williams, Head of Discrimination, Eversheds LLP, Janet Davies, Chief Executive, Women's Pioneer Housing and Samantha Clark, Field HR and Employee Relations Lead, Accenture discuss the Government's proposed changes to the flexible working policy which are likely to take place in 2014.


Philippa Lamb: This year the government will introduce legislation to give everyone the right to ask their employer if they can work flexibly. Now many parents and carers have already taken up this right and flex can take many forms, from part timing and compressed hours to home working and more unusually, job sharing and term time working. 
Ben Willmott is senior public policy adviser for the CIPD and I asked him to explain exactly what the changes are and why this policy shift is happening now.

Ben Willmott: The changes are an extension of the right to request flexible working to all employees, which compares to the current situation which gives the right to request flexible working to parents of children aged up to 17 and some carers. So it will hopefully mean that over time those employers who aren’t providing flexible working and those employees who aren’t benefiting from flexible working and potentially could will be able to benefit from a greater work/life balance.

PL: So what’s prompted this extension of the right to ask? Was it something that employees were calling for?

BW: I think it’s a combination of a number of factors. One is the fact that we have an aging population, businesses are increasingly going to have to manage an aging workforce which means that people won't just be caring for children, they’ll be caring for grandparents, they’ll be caring for aging partners or spouses and parents and so it is crucial that employers get better at managing a more diverse and particularly an aging workforce. So I think certainly that is one of the reasons behind it. I think the other one is also the fact that we know there is a very strong business case for employers to invest in providing more flexibility for the workplace in terms of staff retention, employee engagement and employee wellbeing and we also know that there is still a long way to go before the majority of employees are able to benefit from flexible working where the business allows it. At the moment we have quite limited take up really even though a lot of employers are providing flexible working.

PL: As with the current legislation the new regulations allow bosses to say no to flexible working requests on eight business grounds.

BW: That's one of the reasons why the CIPD has been so supportive of this, what we see as light touch regulation, we know from how the existing right to request has worked over the last decade but it really has created very few problems for employers, it has generated very, very few tribunal claims. 90% of employers who responded to our survey said that the right to request legislation had provided them with no problems at all. So it really is good light touch regulation that hopefully can support more conversations between employers and employees about the potential for improving flexibility and work/life balance within organisations.

PL: Although the current legislation is far from new within some organisations there is still a cultural resistance to the idea of flexible working. Some employees just don’t feel entirely confident or comfortable about asking for it even if they’re entitled to. I asked Ben Willmott if making the right to request universal would make a big difference to the number of people working in this way.

BW: I think it’s going to take possibly another ten to 15 years before we really see that significant step change. I do think we are on a journey to much greater flexibility but we're a long way from getting to the point where flexibility becomes an integral part of all workplaces.

PL: Having said that do you think we will see a lot more people asking now?

BW: I don't think we're going to suddenly see a significant increase. I think we will see over time a gradual increase. The legislative change will contribute to that increase. I think the evidence is that the right to request flexible working has meant that discussions around flexible working and the issue of flexible working has become much more acceptable and has a higher profile than it did before.

PL: Simply giving all employees the right to ask for flexible work won't substantially increase uptake unless attitudes change too. Many employees are still worried about how working flexibly might impact on their career progression. In January the president of the Law Society, Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, went public with what she called the uncomfortable truth that some law firms are paying mere lip service to the concept of flexibility because they argue that lawyers who choose to do it lack the necessary commitment to handle senior roles. Now obviously this has hit female lawyers hardest and as she put it if career progression was based on pure merit some male business leaders and law firm senior partners would never even have seen the painting on the boardroom wall. 
Now if you heard December’s podcast about gender equality in the workplace you'll remember that the law firm Eversheds takes a very different approach. They use senior flexible workers as role models for younger professionals to actively demonstrate that flexibility is no barrier to advancement in their firm. Audrey Williams is a partner in the human resources practice at Eversheds where she is head of discrimination. I asked her when businesses could expect the new legislation to come into effect.

Audrey Williams: The indications of course that we have from government we're going to have another consultation exercise towards the middle of this year probably and likely implementation date is going to be 2014, probably in April because that's obviously a typical timescale for these types of family rights and new rights to be introduced.

PL: So in 2014 when the new legislation comes into force what do businesses have to do in order to be prepared for requests especially if they haven't been in this position before? Here’s Audrey Williams again.

AW: I think particularly if you’re in an organisation that doesn’t already extend to everyone I think there's definitely an awareness raising exercise to be achieved obviously before the provisions come in and one of the risk areas I think is obviously the realisation, particularly from a line manager, that's the person that I'm going to go and talk to and make the request to initially, they may not appreciate the change has been effected and they may reject or tell me that I can't ask for that when actually I now have the legal right. So I think that’s the first requirement. I think it’s probably as well to revise flexible working policies, they’re quite common in organisations, particularly, you know, let’s move away now from the strict timetable and timeframes so we want to make the most of that and now work to a timeframe that operates effectively for the organisation but I also think there is a balance to be met between being consistent but also being very careful that yes everyone will have the right to request flexible working but of course there are other rights that might impact if you say no to me. 
So for example if I'm making my request for flexible working, reduced hours, because of a disability and I need to work around that of course the flexible working regulations that's one thing but I have a set of disability discrimination rights, reasonable adjustments, so although the government’s saying, “We will allow employers to prioritise we won't require them to,” I think there is legally speaking a need for employers to think about who does actually have legal obligations and therefore who does need to be given priority when they make those requests. 
In addition to raising awareness and looking at any existing policies I think there is a need to encourage the taking of a positive approach. Often it’s the way someone’s request is dealt with and handled when they’re feeling that it has seriously been considered, genuinely been considered that can lead to concerns and complains. So I think try and be positive, try if you can to ask yourself the question can we accommodate it rather than what are the reasons why we can't. And although the statutory provisions don’t really talk about trial periods I think that's something that if you’ve got a good dialogue going I would certainly encourage a lot of my clients to if you’re in doubt, trial it, explain to the individual you've got doubts and then make your final decision.

PL: For some businesses there are operational pressures that might make it difficult for them to agree to flexible working for all their employees. However with the new legislation they can still reject requests on those eight grounds, including that the extra cost might damage the business or if the business is planning changes to the workforce. I asked Audrey if she expects an increase in the number of disputes in this area due to an increase in requests for flexibility.

AW: I think what we might see are some different types of disputes. What I mean by that is I think it’s less likely that we're going to see a significant surge in complaints under the flexible working regulations themselves and actually it’s quite difficult to say, “Well you've given me a reason, yes it might fall within one of the eight but I don’t accept that's a good reason,” what we're more likely to see is people who are unhappy that others have been granted and they haven't and if they can find particularly a discrimination angle or perhaps even if they feel strongly about it this is just unfair and you've granted it to others, you’re victimising me or, you know, maybe I've blown the whistle on something and therefore you’re trying to get at me, you’re saying no, I think we’ll see those types of detrimental treatment complaints, discrimination, victimisation complaints as a result of, I have this new right to request and you haven't dealt with it fairly and appropriately.

PL: The business benefits attached to flexible working are well established and at a recent CIPD conference I met with three organisations that are already keen advocates. Firstly British Gas, Angela Williams is their HR director and I asked her how long the company has been offering flexible working to its employees.

Angela Williams: There’s always been a history of flexible working at British Gas, the key thing is that we need to reflect the customers and the customer diversity that we have so we have over 12 million customers across the UK and as you can imagine it’s a very, very diverse customer base so we try to attract people that reflect that diversity. So going back 20, 30, 40 years we have had flexibility around whether it’s working hours, working time, shift patterns, operating structures, so the whole variety of flexibility that you can imagine is in there and our only key criterion is that it meets the needs of the operation.

PL: So you were very, very early adopters of all this and for good strategic business reasons.

Angela W: Yeah.

PL: What do you see then as the key benefits of doing it?

Angela W: It enables us to attract people who wouldn’t necessarily immediately say, “I want to go and work for British Gas,” for example if we take people in their late 50s who have been retrained as Smart Metering engineers they may have had a trade all the way through their lives but they’ve said, “Well actually I want to come in and I want to work three days a week but I want to learn a new trade,” we've said, “Fine, great you've got the customer skills, you know how to interact with people but you don’t have the technical skills we’ll train you,” and actually we have a more motivated workforce as a result of it because they genuinely want to be with us, they’ve got the flexibility that they need and it gives us an ability to make sure that our resource plan is full so we can actually fulfil all the productivity levels that we need.

PL: In theory all 35,000 employees at British Gas already have the opportunity to work flexibly, however, as Angela indicated, offering opportunities to a workforce as big as this is no mean feat and there is a complex infrastructure in place to make sure that flex works efficiently and importantly that the company can still deliver in all the areas it needs to. Here’s Angela Williams.

Angela W: We have specific people who do nothing but resource plan so every minute and every hour of every day we will have resources allocated to customer plans and customer activities. So people do that as a full time job. 

PL: How many of those people do you have?

Angela W: Not that many, not as many as you would think actually, it’s probably about 30 people who will do that across the board. It’s very sophisticated in terms of how they do it. What they will do is people will need in advance to say, “I need to work 18 hours this week,” or, “I need to work 25 hours this week,” and they will then feed it in and people don’t always get what they want but most of the time we can try and accommodate it. In the contact centres and with our engineers it is very difficult for them to come and go as they please it does have to all be scheduled in.

PL: So with such a large and diverse workforce flexible working at British Gas operates in a variety of different ways. Here’s Angela again.

Angela W: So it can be everything from, “I want to work part time,” or, “I want to work fixed hours,” or, “I only want to work at weekends,” or, “I only want to work from nine til 12,” through to, “I have childcare issues where I need to leave early is that okay?” or actually I want to change my working patterns on a, not necessarily weekly basis, but as long as we know in advance a weekly, fortnightly, monthly basis. So as long as we know in advance it’s actually very helpful because we can then plan and we can fill our resource plan. For people who are not so driven by the operating plan we actually just then offer flexibility that we do it on trust. So as long as you deliver we don’t actually mind where you work and the hours you work as long as you’re delivering for us. Obviously if they don’t deliver then that's a very different debate, but generally people who work either flexibly or part time actually are probably more productive.

PL: As well as this increase in productivity Angela says that flexibility gives British Gas a variety of other wins too.

Angela W: The cost in terms of absence is actually quite low, it doesn’t sound that low but £20m or £30m a year is lost in absence but actually if we save one day then we can be saving one or two million pounds so there's big money involved by actually having that level of flexibility.

PL: And offering flex brings down your absenteeism. 

Angela W: It absolutely does. 

PL: So it’s a business win. 
AnW: Yeah, yeah and turnover as well, so our attrition levels, again for a contact centre environment and an engineer workforce is the lowest in the industry and that is directly linked to the ability that people have to have flexibility and they believe that they are, as you say, treated like adults. 

PL: Women’s Pioneer Housing is a not for profit housing organisation. Founded back in 1920 they currently provide 1,000 homes in West London. Janet Davies is their chief executive and she told me why Pioneer had started to offer flexible working to their people and exactly how their approach works.

Janet Davies: It was a way of attracting staff when we were a relatively small organisation and when the other local employers were much more competitive than we were.

PL: And has that worked for you?

JD: Absolutely. Our staff retention is really good and even at times when people have found getting hold of employees difficult it’s not been a problem for us. We offer pretty standard packages to our office staff so they’re able to pretty much fix their hours within a core which I think is standard amongst many organisations these days, but for staff who have more fixed hours, so ones that work on site providing services directly to our tenants they’re able to choose their hours so that they suit both the tenants and suit the staff member themselves so they will be able to select say for five hours any time starting from seven in the morning until maybe nine or ten in the morning.

PL: Just like British Gas Women’s Pioneer Housing has reaped the business benefits of flexible working. 

JD: In terms of retention and commitment absolutely and we haven't had the turnover that others have experienced. The third sector often loses people to the private sector when times are good and we haven't seen that happen and I know it’s a feature of why people stay with us and certainly we have recently attracted people from the private sector into our organisation because they were attracted by the working conditions.

PL: I asked Janet Davies whether she thought that using trial periods to explore the way a flexible working arrangement might work had been useful at Pioneer.

JD: Absolutely. That's partly because however much you discuss it you don’t really know whether it’s going to work or not and I think everybody needs to have an opportunity to back off at a certain point and discuss whether the arrangement needs to either be tweaked or changed altogether but I think it’s a way of reassuring the people working around that staff member that if there are problems then there will be an opportunity for them to be reviewed and for them to be resolved.

PL: Samantha Clark is the UK and Ireland HR Director for Accenture. As a global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company Accenture employs around 10,000 here in the UK and Ireland and over a quarter of a million worldwide. Flexible working is already well embedded in the culture. I asked Samantha Clark why it was seen as so central to HR policy.

Samantha Clark: I think the business case for us is fairly compelling in that we invest a huge amount of time and money in our people. They’re our only asset in the organisation and we want them to be productive and we want them to engage and we want them to stay with us. We have a population of women, about half the population are women in Accenture UK and Ireland and we clearly when they go off on periods of maternity leave, as they sometimes do, then we clearly want them to come back to us in big numbers and one of the ways in which we find that it’s an attractive return for women is if we can offer and demonstrate that we have made successful arrangements work around flexible working. There's a number of reasons and those are just a few I think as to how the business case for flexibility in our organisation is fairly compelling.

PL: At Accenture they use technological tools to help manage the flexible working process. These include an internal flexible working portal where staff can see what the policy looks like and what an application might involve. Here’s Sam Clark again.

SC: It’s not a hard process but it does encourage them through the questions it asks to think about what sort of flexible work would they be looking for and why do they feel it would be successful. So it does put the emphasis on the individual to say, “This is what I'm after and this is why I think it will work and these are the things that I will put in place to ensure it will work,” and for us then to have a conversation with them because the key thing here is we want to communicate with our staff who make these requests and make it a human process rather than just a form filling thing. So you would sit down then with either your line manager or your HR representative and you would discuss it.

PL: Another tool Accenture employs to help facilitate the home working element of their flexible working practice is a piece of custom built tech which allows instant messaging between employees.

SC: Everybody, regardless of whether they work from home or not, has the same technology on their laptop.

PL: Which is what?

SC: Well in my organisation it’s essentially instant communication, the software that you run on your PC which essentially allows you to instantly ping, we call it ping, instantly communicate with another person in the Accenture network and establish whether they’re in a meeting, whether they’re available, whether they’re offline and essentially it just speeds up communication between you and others. It’s similar to email but it’s more instant and also you can see exactly what status that individual has. So what people use it for is very rapid type of communication. So if I have a very instant request for a particular piece of information, so for example how many people are there in the Manchester office I would ping my Manchester HR person, ask a question and she pings it back two seconds later. So it speeds things up a huge amount but that technology is available to everybody regardless, so it’s not an extra cost but I think what we've now established is that people do have video conferencing facilities as part of that software so when you’re sitting at home you can see who you’re talking to because you’ve a camera on your PC.

PL: And you can screen share?

SC: And you can screen share so that you have the same (image) it’s like standing over somebody’s shoulder and watching what they’re doing on a screen but they’re showing you it and they happen to be sitting in their living room rather than them sitting in the office.

PL: Like British Gas and Women’s Pioneer Housing Accenture has experienced fantastic business benefits from its stance on flexible working, including improved staff loyalty and retention.

SC: My experience has been if you trust people, if you give them that little bit of extra flexibility you get it back in spades in terms of the loyalty and the effort and the hard work that people put in, particularly if you’re flexible around family circumstances I think, people are very loyal and in fact we've found that with flexible generally when it works successfully it makes people very sticky if you like in that they find it very hard to give that up, particularly home working I think as well as a phenomenon, if people actually move to home working arrangements and they maybe work, for example, two days a week from home out of a five day a week arrangement, actually they often come to enjoy that level of flexibility in a way that perhaps surprises them sometimes and then perhaps when they’re considering an alternative to working for us it’s actually something that's fairly sizeable for them to give up.

PL: And difficult to replicate elsewhere?

SC: Yeah because it’s not necessarily everybody’s experience that there's that amount of flexibility I think to work from home for example.

PL: And obviously your consultants, I'm sure you measure all this don’t you, so you do see clear business benefits from it?

SC: Yes I think that's absolutely right. So the number of women who come back from maternity leave in terms of that returning population is significantly better than it’s ever been and there could be a number of reasons for that but we believe predominantly that it’s because of the ability for us to offer flexibility. I think also in terms of employee engagement, I mean we measure this through employee surveys, if you look at the correlation between people who enjoy some degree of flexibility and their engagement levels there's a clear correlation. They’re a bit happier than others when it’s working successfully and I think that's good for us from a morale point of view in terms of the atmosphere and the culture in the organisation. So I think for a number of reasons yeah we measure things, we measure the benefit. Some of it’s a bit intangible you don’t measure everything but I think what we can measure we have actually got good evidence to suggest that it’s a real business benefit for us.

PL: So the benefits of flexible working can be enormous and with the new legislation just around the corner now is the time for businesses to be thinking about how they can integrate more flexible work into their own organisations. Here’s Ben Willmott from the CIPD.

BW: We need to see more organisations who are really thinking about flexible working when they are going through organisational redesign, organisational development, really looking at how you can design jobs in different ways so that flexible working can be more integrated. I think those opportunities aren’t fully explored and I think that's where HR practice probably does need to focus its attention in this area in the future.

PL: Yes I mean that would be the intelligent way to go about it wouldn’t it rather than trying to squeeze existing job models into flexible working do it the other way round and design the jobs as such that they really lend themselves to it.

BW: Absolutely. So for example things like job share we know that they are rarely, hardly ever used if you look at our survey evidence but the evidence is that there is demand for those types of roles.

PL: Is the practicalities of making them work that hold people back?

BW: I think it is, so I think HR certainly needs to get to grips with designing high quality job shares but a lot of it is also educating managers in terms of how they manage job shares and how they performance manage job shares so the line management education piece is critical to progressing flexible working.

PL: Encouraging positivity and really hammering home the benefits rather than any perceived disadvantages.

BW: Absolutely changing attitudes.

PL: That's it for this month....


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