Evidence shows that flexible working can have significant business benefits, as well as improving employees’ work-life balance. An NCE special report in association with Hyder Consulting
More from: Flexible working: Shared benefits
Government changes to the rules on flexible working that came into force in June have made people far more aware of the possibility of changing the way they work, and made some employers more than a little anxious about what it means for them. The changes give employees - and not just parents and carers - the legal right to request flexible working; and employers must deal with requests in a “reasonable manner”.
While the new law does not give any guarantees that an employee will be allowed to change their work patterns, it does indicate that flexible working is entering the mainstream, rather than being an exception that has to be fought for.
The term “flexible working” covers a wide range of practices, from flexitime, in which employees choose how to schedule their own working hours around compulsory “core hours”, through to working from home (see box).
“Flexible working can be somebody wanting to work fewer hours or the same hours in a different way,” explains Hyder UK managing director Graham Reid. Not all of the methods of flexible working will suit every organisation, but there is no reason why most of them cannot be considered in engineering consultancy, Reid says.
“In a consultancy business you sell people’s time, so you are monitoring what hours they do anyway. As long as staff achieve their objectives, I’m pretty relaxed where they are, as long as the client is not let down - that’s a key priority.”
Types of flexible working
The term “flexible working” describes a type of working arrangement which gives some degree of flexibility about how long, where, when and at what times employees work. The flexibility can be in terms of working time, working location or the pattern of working.
Flexible working practices include:
- Job sharing: Two people do one job and split the hours
- Working from home: Doing some or all of the work from home or anywhere else other than the normal place of work
- Part time: Working less than full time hours (usually by working fewer days)
- Compressed hours: Working full time hours but over fewer days
- Flexitime: The employee chooses when to start and end work (within agreed limits) but works certain core hours, for example 10am to 4pm every day
- Annualised hours: The employee has to work a certain number of hours over the year but has some flexibility about when they work. There are sometimes core hours, which the employee regularly works each week, and they work the rest of their hours flexibly or when there is extra demand at work
- Staggered hours: The employee has different start, finish and break times from other workers
- Phased retirement: There is no longer a default retirement age, so older workers can choose when they want to retire. This means they can reduce their hours and work part time
- Term time working: A worker remains on a permanent contract but can take paid/unpaid leave during school holidays
- Career breaks/sabbaticals: Extended periods of leave - normally unpaid - of up to five years or more
Reid says that flexible working has long been part of the culture at Hyder, although the recent legislative change has made staff more aware of the issue.
“With the change in legislation, people are becoming more aware of the fact they can ask, and I’ve noticed more people asking. But we’ve always been flexible around start times and finish times,” he says.
Hyder UK human resources and change management director Chantelle Ludski concurs.
“Flexible working has always happened here,” she says, and when pressed on why the company adopts such a refreshing attitude, replies: “Why wouldn’t we do it?”
Ludski can cite examples within the company of almost all of the different forms of flexible working available. Some staff do so-called “compressed hours” - working five days’ worth of hours in four days; some work from home when they need to, for example so they can be at home to pick up children from school, or in order to concentrate on a focused piece of work.
Others start or finish late, so that they can work more easily with colleagues outside the UK, and shift their working patterns around or take time off to compensate.
“We do a lot of work internationally, so often people are working in different time zones,” explains Reid.
“We’ve got 300 people in our technical excellence centres in India, so people often come in early for meetings.”
Case study: environmental sector
Hyder ecology and cultural heritage business director Bruce Lascelles has a team that stretches from London to Cardiff and Stroud to East Kilbride.
Lascelles balances travelling to catch up with the team with using technology to make the working day more flexible.
This allows him to share the childcare responsibilities for his two daughters with his wife, a research portfolio manager at the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council. He is also able to manage day to day planning, strategising or dealing with sensitive personnel issues in a more private location or outside of typical working hours.
“Flexible working enables me to do my job, which is very demanding, more effectively (in particular, responding to urgent requests for support or information),” he says.
“With our IT systems, I can access all my files as long as I’m internet connected allowing me, for example, to leave the office on time to pick up the kids and catch up later to meet a tight deadline.
“I feel proud that I work for a company that trusts its employees to manage their time. It’s a sign of a mature company that is focused on enabling its people to deliver for its clients rather than clock watching.”
The company also has an ecology business, whose members tend to work what Ludski calls “crazy hours” during the summer, and then make up for it by working shorter days in the winter.
Ludski says flexitime is the norm, although there is no formal policy. People often leave early on a Friday and work longer hours at other times, she says, explaining that they may simply be trying to avoid rush hour traffic or get back in time to do an outdoor activity. Finishing early and compressing hours are also popular options for people who are in the run-up to their chartership review, or a key stage in their MSc studies.
“It’s pretty flexible,” confirms Ludski, who says that all it takes is for an employee to tell their line manager that they would like to talk about flexible working to get the ball rolling. “All they have to say is ‘I’d like to change my working hours or days - can we have a conversation?’ and a meeting will be arranged with HR and the line manager to consider it in relation to their current commitments and chat about it,” she says. The line manager and HR representative will then try to work out what it would mean for the team, what the challenges are and how the team would continue to function.
“It’s really about working with them to work out the best thing for them and for the business,” Ludski explains.
Reid says this process is similar to the situation the business has to face every time someone takes maternity leave.
Case study: water sector
Claire Bursnoll, a principal engineer in Hyder’s integrated water team, sees flexible working as embedded in the culture of how we work today.
With men and women juggling professional and personal responsibilities and commitments, the option to work fewer days, or the opportunity to adapt the hours put in on a given work day is an essential part of respecting individuals and therefore contributing to motivation and loyalty.
Claire works a four day week, an arrangement that works well with her team and her clients.
“In my team, we all recognise that our responsibilities to our clients are paramount.
“Ensuring we deliver what has been agreed is a given.
“At the same time, we respect the level of flexibility we are provided within those perimeters.
Because the company trusts its employees, no one abuses it, and as a result, I think people are more willing to go the extra mile than in organisations which are more rigid.”
Claire’s expertise lies in finding collaborative approaches to reducing flood risk.
She is currently working with county councils to appraise the risk of flooding from river and surface water in critical drainage areas.
The aim is to recommend affordable and effective ways to plan for and mitigate the impact of rainfall now and in the future.
“I don’t think it should be a problem, and I don’t conceive any role where we couldn’t make it work, provided there isn’t a negative impact on the project” he says.
Historically, it has been women who have requested more flexibility in their working hours, but this is no longer the case, says Ludski.
“The world has changed so much. Now there are so many guys who want or need to take the kids on the school run, or take them to school clubs or whatever it might be. So we see requests across both genders,” she says. And, she adds: “We also see requests around lifestyle - not just children.”
In the 2013 Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD) report Future-proofing business resilience through flexible working, Sarah Jackson, chief executive of work/life balance organisation Working Families, says: “To date, flexible working has tended to be seen more as a woman’s issue associated with childcare, but this crude gender stereotyping is slowly beginning to change. “With dual-income families now being common, and the earning potential of women improving, more women are becoming essential breadwinners and more men are beginning to request flexible working arrangements. Flexible working is now just as likely to be an issue for men as for women,” she adds.
According to Reid, staff are able to work flexibly at Hyder because of “technological advances that are enabling people to work from home, and the company culture that is enabling them to work in a way that suits them best”. Technology has been vital in moving the flexible working culture beyond simply allowing people to start or finish at different times.
“Technology is a great enabler for us,” says Ludski, who explains that the company uses an integrated VoIP system that enables people to log in from any location, access all of their documents, and view and share those documents with other people - wherever they may be. “That makes a huge difference,” she says.
Case study: structures
Phil Tindall is a senior technical director in Hyder’s structures team. He is currently working on projects including the M4 Newport Bypass, Manchester Smart Motorway and Auckland Harbour Bridge in New Zealand.
Having taken the decision to work flexibly more than six years ago, he hasn’t looked back.
“With the kids grown up and financially independent, I thought it was the time to reassess how I spent my time. I do a lot of sailing on Saturday and Sunday, so the extra day allows me to do all the typical “weekend jobs” on Friday. It has worked well. My role is largely the same, working with the same clients and on the same projects. Of course, there is the odd exception when the work demands take over or I have to travel, but I view it as a give and take.
“My expertise is in providing advice to clients and colleagues about steel works and moving structures. I enjoy the challenge and stimulation of finding solutions to these often complex problems. Had Hyder not considered my request, I would have thought seriously about retiring, but this way, Hyder maintains the expertise in the business and I continue to work on these inspiring projects.”
Hyder runs its business using a sector-based model rather than a geographical one, so it is likely that staff will be working most of the time with people who are not based in the same office.
“That’s been quite a shift for us culturally,” says Reid. “In the old days we were used to working in teams sitting next to each other.
“Now your team could be split across any of our offices in the UK, India the Middle East, Australia or South East Asia.
“That’s why it is not as important to be physically next to the person. It doesn’t matter where you’re sitting,” he adds.
The initial decision to invest in the system was to enable these “virtual” teams to collaborate more easily, and to reduce telecommunication costs. But once it had been installed, Hyder soon realised the benefits it would have for remote and flexible working.
While Hyder says flexible working is simply a reflection of the company’s culture - one of its brand values is, after all, “people” - there are also sound business reasons for letting people work in the way that best suits them and their lifestyle.
“Flexible working is one of the key drivers for staff engagement,” says Ludski. And engagement is heavily linked to staff retention.
As we emerge from recession, consultants are competing for a limited pool of suitably qualified people, so keeping hold of the employees you’ve got - as well as attracting new staff -
is becoming more important.
“There is a strong link between flexible working, employee engagement and productivity,” says Jackson. “The most tangible benefits result in reduced sickness absence, improved retention rates and savings in the cost of recruitment, all of which help to boost productivity.”
Case study: Environmental
Hyder principal environmental consultant Julia Faure Walker, believes that working flexibly has enabled her to fulfill her professional and personal objectives.
Faure Walker aims to work on interesting and challenging projects, with a wide range of colleagues and clients, while maintaining her family responsibilities with a young toddler and a surgeon husband.
“Having recently returned from maternity leave, the last few months have involved much transition, but it’s been much smoother than I anticipated, both with clients and colleagues. I’ve even managed to achieve another milestone - Chartered status.
“I have worked at Hyder for over 10 years, and have a depth of knowledge and historical information on projects and bids, as well as a network of long standing relationships with colleagues and clients. If I were to leave, Hyder would lose this valuable information.
“Flexible working has made it possible for me to stay in the business and continue to build an engaging and rewarding career. It has certainly increased my loyalty to the organisation.”
According to the 2004 report Driving performance and retention through employee engagement, by the Corporate Leadership Council, flexibility is one of the top 50 “levers” with the most impact on employee engagement. The report also concludes that engaged employees are 87% less likely to leave their organisations than those with low levels of commitment, try 57% harder and perform 20% better.
Ludski is not surprised by these results. “I think it’s a very challenging work environment to work nine to five every day,” she says. “It’s demoralising if you don’t have flexible working.”
“I think we should do whatever makes sense to have a workforce that loves coming to work and thinks it’s a good place to be,” she adds.
In its 2012 Flexible working provision and uptake survey, the CIPD found that over 70% of respondents (employers and employees) perceived that flexible working had a positive effect on recruitment, and 70% also thought employee motivation was higher.
Case study: rail sector
Steve Newton is project and commercial manager in Hyder’s rail sector, and works flexibly to accommodate looking after his two young children.
When asked if flexible working, both at Hyder and in previous roles, has helped him and his family achieve a greater balance, he said: “Undoubtedly. Without it, either my children would have to be in paid childcare for long hours and I would miss out on their development, or my wife would not be able to work as a GP, an incredibly demanding job - far more demanding than mine - which also allows for flexible working.”
Newton adds: “If flexible working weren’t an option at Hyder I would not have been able to accept the job offer.
“If a company wants to attract and retain the best staff, it needs to understand what motivates staff to join, and stay, beyond money.
“For me, that motivation is having a choice to work flexibly and share childcare with my wife.”
However, one of the major concerns among employees is that, if they do work flexibly, they may not receive the support they need from their managers, or may get passed over when it comes to promotion, because they are not as “visible” as some of their colleagues.
It is an issue that was flagged up by respondents to the CIPD survey, 35% of whom had concerns about their line managers’ ability to manage individuals working more flexibly and their attitudes to flexible working.
To overcome these barriers, managers have to learn techniques for managing virtual teams, says Ludski.
NCE recently carried out a survey on flexible working. Respondents to the survey were also asked to share their experiences or beliefs about flexible working.
Here are some of the comments:
“There are boundaries to any work. One needs to be aware that their job has interfaces with others that might not have the same working pattern.”
“Those who oppose flexible working are generally those who reactively manage and have all staff around them at all times to mask their insecurities.”
“The long hours culture in construction is at odds with flexible working as employees are generally expected to work longer than their contracted hours.”
“Flexible working would allow me to reduce the number of miles I drive to work and consequently my environmental impact. It would also contribute to reducing congestion.”
“As a tender manager it is thought that if you are not doing outrageous hours you aren’t trying hard enough. It is unhealthy and not productive.”
“Flexible working hours works to an extent but can create issues with getting work done within a team environment where multiple people are working on projects.”
“Flexible working was a key reason for accepting the role. It has benefits for the company and my personal situation, which make it a win-win.
“In addition to achieving greater work-life balance, it also is one of the solutions for peak hour traffic congestion.”
“This only works if there is trust between employer and employee.”
“The main issue is ensuring that people don’t contact you about work when you’re not working.”
“Flexibility in today’s world of email and constant access to data is definitely the way forward. There are many times now that you can complete your workload with remote working that previously may have been spent travelling. Also, as an engineer with a young family, being able to have some flexibility around the children and then being able to complete reports later into the evening shows the give and take of today’s world.”
“Flexible working provides the opportunity to think with a clear mind. It is very useful when you have to carry out calculations.”
“In some cases, such as meeting clients or when there is an urgent deadline, flexible working very quickly will turn back into full time or even overtime working.
“Flexibility means full liberalisation of working practices for employees. Work places tend to offer flexibility but with time constraints attached. We will need a significant culture shift for true flexibility to be better accepted.
“I find that I am actually more productive on the days I work from home. I would advocate flexible working for happy and motivated employees.
“Managers need to employ some key strategies. There are some simple tricks, for example having monthly meetings face to face,” she says.
“They should make sure that they have regular one to ones with each member of the team, and some sort of team based event, otherwise people can feel more and more remote.”
And if a new job comes up, says Ludski, “you have to do everything you can to consider all the right talent for the role”.
Hyder has put in place various company-wide strategies to make sure everyone is treated equally, whatever their working arrangements - including quarterly “people days” to consider up and coming talent, and “keeping in touch days” for women on maternity leave.
However, Reid is adamant that flexible working should be seen as a benefit to the company not a problem.
“I think we need to look at it from a positive point of view,” he says. “I think we should be looking at how we can positively encourage it.”
From 30 June 2014, all employees have the legal right to request flexible working - not just parents and carers.
This is known as “making a statutory application”. Before June 2014 this right only applied to the parents of children under 17 (or 18 in the case of parents of disabled children) or to those caring for an adult. Now any eligible employee can apply to work flexibly for any reason.
Employees must have worked continuously for the same employer for at least 26 weeks to be eligible, and can only make one statutory request in any 12 month period.
Employers must deal with requests in a “reasonable manner”, which could includeassessing the advantages and disadvantages of the application,
holding a meeting to discuss the request with the employee and offering an appeal process.
If an employer does not handle the request in a reasonable manner, the employee can take them to an employment tribunal.
An employer can refuse an application if they have a good business reason for doing so.
- Conciliation organisation Acas has produced a guide for employers which can be viewed and downloaded
This special report has been produced in association with Hyder Consulting