How to Make Flexible Working Work: Top Tips for SMEs

As a small business owner, any simple and effective opportunity to boost business productivity, establish a positive reputation and increase revenue probably sounds highly appealing. And yet, although many companies willingly invest in marketing campaigns, put in the hard yards to generate PR and bust a gut to cut down on costs and maximise profits, there are two words that strike fear into their very heart, despite carrying all these benefits.  Flexible. Working.

The Business Case for Flexible Working

It’s understandable, really.  Small businesses are far more exposed to risk than big corporations, and any step into the unknown can be a bit daunting. But the fact is that flexible working can and does work.  Not just for the employee requesting it, but, resoundingly and unequivocally for the employer too.  (A recent survey by Vodafone highlighted that 83% of global companies offering flexible working improved their productivity and 58% said it had boosted their reputation. 61% said that flexible working had a direct effect on their profit and loss statement by increasing their company’s earnings).

You’ve just got to know how to make it work in the context of your business.

The fact is that the way we work is changing.  The traditional 9 to 5 drill is becoming less and less standard, and the case for it is dwindling.  Aside from a few obvious exceptions, presenteeism in the office just isn’t a necessary requirement in order to get the job done.

Flexible Working: The Law

Every employee has the right to request flexible working, and for that request to be considered reasonably. The request must be submitted in writing, and a meeting held to discuss the request at the soonest opportunity.  The request must be responded to, in writing, within three months. Of course, as the employer, you have the absolute right to refuse that request, but solid business grounds are required and reasons must be given. These must fall into one of the following categories:

    – the burden of additional costs

    – an inability to reorganise work amongst existing staff

    – an inability to recruit additional staff

    – a detrimental impact on quality

    – a detrimental impact on performance

    – detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand

    – insufficient work for the periods the employee proposes to work

    – a planned structural change to the business

Employees may only make one request within a twelve-month period. You may both agree a trial period to make sure that the new arrangements are working.

Making Flexible Working Work in an SME

 More to the point though, all the aforementioned evidence suggests that – moral and legal obligations aside – the employer stands to gain as much as the employee in supporting flexibility.

The big question for small employers is how to make it work – and for the answer to this, we have turned to a small, but growing business that has done just that.  A shining example of flexibility in action, Business Clan is comprised of a team of women whose previous careers were no longer available to them in a way that would fit around their families. Collectively, they have decades of corporate experience and transferable, diverse skill sets. Business Clan offers part-time, flexible work, which allows everyone in the team to balance parenthood, sporting pursuits, volunteer work or any other dimension of their life for a healthy work/life balance. Almost four years after start-up, Business Clan has an award-winning team of eighteen intelligent, creative and innovative women.  Most recently their success was rewarded with a Chamber of Commerce award for ‘Best Team Development’, central to which was their approach to diversity and inclusion in building a truly flexible working model.

Here’s the definitive ‘tip sheet’ on how to make flexible working work, from Business Clan’s owners, Delia Porter (Founding Director) and Nicolle Anderson (Business Development Director):

Define ‘flexibility’ clearly

Flexibility. It’s one word, but it has many interpretations.  To one person, it might mean working full time, but from home.  To the next, it might mean that they value the camaraderie of the office but need to leave at 3pm every day. It might be job sharing, term time only working or any other form of flexible arrangement.  Flexibility will only work if it suits both parties in equal measure.  As the employer you need to be clear on what you can and can’t support (and why / how), and you need to clearly understand what the employee needs from their side in order for the arrangement to be truly beneficial.  Furthermore, the agreement you reach needs to be clearly documented and communicated, to avoid any misunderstanding further down the line.  Finally, you need to strike a balance between fair and equal treatment, and considering each request and case on its individual merits.

Clarity of purpose and goals

Clear objectives, clear expectations and clear deadlines are essential in any business and team.  When you introduce flexible working you need to reinforce this message regularly to each employee, but also ensure that everyone understands the wider context of how their work impacts the business as a whole. Essential to this is clarity of structure – be clear about who reports to whom, and whose responsibility it is to maintain regular, timely and relevant contact with flexible or remote workers.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Successfully implemented flexible working relies heavily on appropriate and timely communication in all directions.  Remote workers should be remote only by geographical definition, and in no other way.  Those who job share will rely equally on seamless transition of data and communication from one to another.  Managing this effectively means identifying the right systems, procedures, protocols and media for making communication work in your business, reaching out to all employees with any key messaging no matter where, when or how they work. Equally, though, it must be timely.  Flexibility isn’t really flexibility if your expectation is that your employees are available for calls and emails ‘on demand’ outside of their agreed available hours.

Support

When you work in an office, surrounded by co-workers and line managers, you probably barely notice how often people come to each other’s side to give advice, be a second pair of eyes and ears on something, or share knowledge.  If you run a small business, committing to flexible working also means committing to making yourself contactable and available.  Make sure your employees know when and how best to contact you, and what they can expect from you in terms of day to day support – be that learning and development, advice or feedback.

Maintain a sense of ‘team’

At Business Clan, everyone works entirely flexibly.  We have an office, but there is no obligation to be there at any specific time.  In fact, like many small businesses, when we started out there was no office at all.  Yet, central to our success has been the sense of team we have created.  We meet regularly as an entire company (once a month) whether for knowledge sharing, training, project updates, or strategy and planning.  The team really value these meetings, and are also encouraged to meet as sub teams on a regular basis, whether at each other’s houses, locally, or in the recently acquired office.  We socialise regularly, from family picnics in the summer, to rounders matches with local businesses, and the occasional night out.  The fact that we don’t sit side by side all day every day doesn’t make us less of a team. This has largely happened organically – we are a sociable and friendly bunch.  But it has also been a conscious effort to make sure that we frequently come together and that ‘no man [woman!] is an island’.

Celebrate and share the wins

Small business moves fast.  And when you’re growing in your marketplace, things change all the time.  Showcasing our successes with the whole team is crucial to building our camaraderie, creating a sense of pride and unity and, above all, publicly rewarding and congratulating individuals when they contribute to our growth and success.  It sounds obvious, but it can easily be forgotten.  So, whether it’s winning a new business pitch, receiving a glowing client testimonial, or gaining a new accreditation or award, we shout it from the rooftops so that everyone (not just those sat in the office at that precise moment) gets to celebrate it. A win for one of us is a win for all of us, after all.

Flexible working is at the cornerstone of how we work at Business Clan, and you won’t find any stronger advocates for it than us – both from an employer and an employee perspective. But, there is a third, and often overlooked angle; the perspective of our clients.  Many business owners worry about the impact on client or customer relationships.  However, in the end, the client has one concern, and that’s the delivery of a quality service or product.  If you manage your flexible working policies and practices effectively, you’ve got nothing to worry about on that front.  Moreover, if our experience is anything to go by, your clients will be impressed by a refreshing stance towards flexibility and inclusivity in action.

Naomi Scoffham

Business Clan is a one stop shop for business consultancy and professional services. We help businesses to grow by providing knowledge, expertise and implementation services all under one roof.  Together we deliver all the essential services larger organisations take for granted and small businesses struggle to find.

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