No Flex Please, We're British

Last Updated Jun 11, 2008 11:42 AM EDT

An overwhelming majority of employees want the option to work flexibly. But just 22 per cent of UK companies extend the offer to all employees, according to a research paper by Avaya entitled 'Flexible Working in Europe and Russia'.

Even so, British employers are better than their Continental cousins, where an average 17 per cent encourage wide uptake of flexible options.

Under EU law, carers and parents with a child under six or a disabled child under 18 have the right to request flexible working.

Beyond that, it's discretionary. Small and medium-sized enterprises are less apt to encourage it, says Avaya -- 57 per cent vs. 74 per cent in larger firms.

Yet it could be a valuable tool in retaining talent -- 31 per cent of employees would leave in favour of a more flexible job and the majority would stay with a company past retirement age if they could work flexibly.

Avaya believes a new digital divide is opening up between companies that have the foresight to provide for flexible working and those that don't, which will put their businesses at risk.

Evidence from Cranfield University's School of Management demonstrates that flexible workers tend to have high levels of organisational commitment and sometimes -- but not invariably -- greater job satisfaction.

Crucially, it identifies a flexible strategy as a key competitive advantage in the labour market.

Management of flexible workers, though, can be an issue. Badly done, it can result in an alienated employee and a befuddled boss.

Good communication is at the heart of its seven step set up. Managers may want to build in a regular telephone call or mop-up meeting to ensure issues are picked up before they start to become obstacles.

Charity Working Family offers a guide to small employers that want to set up a policy and a formal request system.

Then there are five steps to making flexible working effective.

  1. Agree the flexible working arrangement with the employee. Stipulate hours, days, holiday pay and any other details, in writing. Consider building in a trial period -- and follow it up with a brief assessment.
  2. Communicate the new working arrangements. Explain any new arrangements -- and their benefits -- to the rest of the organisation. Tell your customers and add contacts and hours in-house to internal documents such as phone lists.
  3. Make sure flexible workers can attend meetings and that they are kept up-to-date on events, as well as the social side of the business.
  4. There must be a mutual willingness to communicate. Flexible employees should ensure they exchange information on what's been going on with colleagues and update people on their comings and goings -- it's a two-way process. Err on the side of repetition, or keep a workplace diary visible to all if this proves difficult.
  5. Deal with abuses quickly. If you suspect a flexible arrangement's not working -- the employee may be consistently late, or uncommunicative, or too frequently absent -- deal with it immediately. Gather evidence and talk the the employee.Remind them that the arrangement is a way of helping them to balance work and home commitments. In return you expect their full co-operation. Agree upon solutions to address the problem.Failure to address a disciplinary problem is bad management and will breed resentment among other team members.