When are flexible working arrangements not flexible enough?

Lizzie Buxton

Written By Lynne Webster, Operations Director, AdviserPlus

16th December 2020

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The Coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdown have posed immense challenges for the UK’s workforce. Millions of people have experienced the ‘joys’ of homeworking and contending with personal challenges such as home schooling, caring for relatives and sharing a ‘home office’ with flatmates at the kitchen table. It’s been an extremely challenging time for employers too; many have had to quickly adjust to managing teams remotely, grappling with logistical issues from technology to client confidentiality, and video meetings, as opposed to face-to-face interactions, becoming the norm.

For many people, working from home for the first time has been a positive experience – saving hours each day on the daily commute, increased productivity levels and being able to achieve a better work/life balance.

With the long-awaited development of a COVID-19 vaccine offering a glimmer of light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel, the desire for more agile working arrangements, when some sense of normality resumes, is looking inevitable.

In addition to benefits to the employee, there are obvious benefits for the employer if agile working is feasible for your organisation, such as attracting and retaining talent, optimising workforce performance and productivity, as well as a reduction in office space and overheads.

So, when thinking about whether your business is prepared for an agile working arrangement, is having a flexible working policy enough?

Unfortunately not.

For years the terms flexible working and agile working have been used interchangeably. This has led to confusion in organisations and among employees and employers.

What is the difference?

Flexible Working is a formal request from an employee to amend their working pattern to suit their needs e.g. working part time, compressing working hours, having flexible start and/or finish times, working from home or job sharing. The key factors of a flexible working process are:

  • A formal request much must be responded to formally within 3 months
  • Limited reasons for refusal
  • Contractual change to Terms and Conditions
  • Has a degree of permanence
  • Limited to one request per year per employee

By comparison, Agile Working has much less formality. It’s a way of working in which an organisation empowers its people to work where, when and how they choose – with maximum flexibility and minimum constraints. This serves to optimise performance and to do their best work:

  • An informal arrangement
  • Non-contractual
  • Has no commitments to permanence
  • Has ongoing flexibility

For employers, COVID-19 has led to a subconscious move towards and tolerance of informal agile working in many workforces – leading businesses to realise that mandated office-bound working, five days a week, is no longer necessary. As we enter 2021, agile working looks set to stay. Organisations will therefore need to give greater consciousness to how they maintain this level of agility in their working arrangements, and most importantly ensure that they have the correct policies in place to support this.

Ten considerations for creating an Agile Working policy

  1. Engagement levels and performance management.

Individual requests for Agile Working may impact upon others in the team, so make sure that you consider this when implementing a policy. Consider ‘core’ times when you need everyone to be present for meetings and handovers. Focus on outputs, solutions and impacts on the business, as well as individual projects rather than the actual time spent on site or ‘in the office’.

  1. Employer and employee responsibilities.

Ensure that the policy is clear on the responsibility of both the employer and the employee. For example, specify certain times that both the employee and the manager are available for meetings, or times when both can be contacted.

  1. Set clear boundaries

Not every role will be suitable for all types of Agile Working and, as such, your policy should be clear that requests are subject to operational requirements and on the understanding that employees should work around the needs of the business. In addition, consider working environments which may not be acceptable, such as coffee shops, shared accommodation or even working from abroad.

  1. Establish etiquette guidelines

Video conference calls have become a necessity this year, and sharing a ‘home office’ with a child or pet have become acceptable. It’s essential to bear in mind that employees may still need to juggle remote working with childcare or other personal responsibilities, which can lead to interruptions but consider at what point pets, children and noise during a video calls or business meetings become reasonably not tolerated.

  1. Ensuring fair and impartial application of policy by managers.

When handling Agile Working requests you’ll need to ensure that you follow a fair process in line with discrimination law. Of course, there will be roles that can’t be performed remotely or beyond core working hours, in which case some Agile Working requests may be impossible to accept. Employers need to carefully consider which tasks can be done flexibly and not make assumptions about a person’s role, working with the employee to find a solution that works for both, where possible. Clearly explaining where agility cannot be granted is equally important to prevent perceptions of unfairness.

  1. Health and safety considerations.

Employers have a duty of care towards the physical and mental health of their staff and this extends to those who are working from home or elsewhere.  In addition to assessing the physical working environment of the employee, you should consider their mental health and keep the lines of communication open, setting regular times for remote catch-ups.

  1. Costs

Agile Working can significantly reduce operating costs such as office rent and space, utilities, furniture and resources, but you will need to consider whether your organisation will cover any expenses incurred by the employee as a result of working from home or elsewhere. Generally, organisations do not have to pay for any home internet broadband costs, or increased energy and heating costs, but they will have to provide the employee with the necessary equipment to do their job effectively. Employees can claim tax relief on working from home through HMRC, up to £6 per week.

  1. Data protection

Employers should make sure data protection standards are maintained, irrespective of location, and should remind employees of this. Factors include home security, setting strong passwords and, securely storing computers and confidential information as well as how to dispose of confidential information in a safe way – shredding etc.

  1. Impact on related policies

Agile Working and the implementation of this policy will invariably impact other policies in your suite: Sickness, Flexible Working, Performance Management, Discipline, Drugs and Alcohol to name a few. You should consider conducting a review of all your policies and enlist the help of specialist HR technical consultants, such as the team at AdviserPlus, to ensure that relevant policies are adapted in order to keep your business compliant and avoid risk.

  1. Build in regular reviews to ensure this way of working does not become ‘custom and practice’.

Conduct regular reviews of Agile Working arrangements to assess whether they are working for the business and the employee. It may be that adaptions are needed as employee circumstances or the nature of their roles change. While every effort should be made to resolve any issues, in some cases, it may be necessary to terminate the Agile Working agreement and revert to the employee’s previous working arrangements. Such a decision should not come as a surprise to the employee and providing clarity of reason is crucial.

Places of work won’t disappear, but they will be re-imagined.

If your New Year’s resolution is to take stock of your HR policies and get them ready for this hybrid model of working, now is the time to act.

AdviserPlus’ team of HR Consultants can help with

  • Policy creation
  • Reviewing and adapting your impacted policies
  • Documentation of supporting processes and procedures
  • Creating manager and employee guides.

Get in touch to find out more.

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