How do you make flexible working work?

Requests for agile working patterns are accelerating: here’s how to keep up

The demand for flexible working is on the rise, but it’s still a daunting prospect for some employers, who question whether they’ll be able to continue to run a cohesive and profitable business once the floodgates are open. So how is this demand going to be met?

“The request for flexible working isn’t a trend that is going to die out,” insists Susanna Tait, Chief Executive of Tay Associates. “An increasing number of candidates are prioritising a better work-life balance over other factors and it’s now one of the first questions they ask about the firm when we present a role to them. That means that employers that continue to resist the request are at risk of struggling to attract talent.”

In order to commit to making flexible working work for your business, it’s important to understand why you should make it work. Don’t think of it as merely a perk to improve the lives of your employees; the introduction of flexible working tends to have a number of positive knock-on effects on the business, including…


Increased productivity. A more flexible way of working tends to increase job satisfaction and reduce stress levels, increasing the employees ability to do their job.

A diverse and inclusive workforce. Limiting your team to those who can (and are willing to) be in the office nine-to-five, Monday to Friday, could be at the cost of other talented, hardworking, interesting, dynamic individuals who just happen to be parents or carers, or have other passions they want to give some time to, like charity work, sports training or creative writing, or simply live too far out of London to make working those hours feasible or desirable.

Holding onto top talent. Put simply, if the best people want flexible working, and other companies offer flexible working, why are they going to choose you?

Mental health. The reduction of office-based stress and exposure to office politics can vastly improve mental wellbeing, plus flexible hours give employees greater control over their time, which can help them take precautions like avoiding busy commuting crowds and allowing time for self-care and medical appointments.

Cutting costs. Companies can spend huge amounts on sick pay, but an improved work/life balance can improve both the physical and mental health of employees. A new structure that lets staff rotate between working in the office or working from home could negate the need for larger, more expensive office space. There’s a strong chance a more appealing working pattern will reduce staff turnover, reducing recruitment costs. It all adds up.

However, even businesses that recognise the potential advantages can be reluctant to offer it to staff. Whether it’s the worry it will encourage employees to slack (it will be harder to monitor whether people are actually working, after all), or a fear it will set a precedent, or simply a mindset that – logistically – you need bums on seats, here are some ways to make it work.

Don’t listen to negative examples. Like everything in life, people are more likely to tell people about a bad experience than a good experience, so don’t base your assumption of flexible working that one story you’ve heard about the person who sits at home watching TV and occasionally moving their mouse around so the screen doesn’t lock. Start from a place of trust, and manage the minority who prove they can’t be trusted later.

Look at what options fit your business model. Flexible working can mean a number of things – job sharing, working from home, part-time hours, compressed hours, flexitime and more – so take some time to work out how each option will impact the business. Maybe your hours are non-negotiable, but employees can do their job from home. Working remotely may not be an option if you’re unable to supply the technology to make that happen, but flexitime could ensure that employees get a better work/life balance.

Introduce a trial period. There’s an understandable fear around introducing flexible working that if it doesn’t work out, things will go downhill. But if you agree from the start that the new work pattern will be reviewed in three months based on feedback from anyone directly affected by the employee’s productivity – inside or outside the company – then the decision is open to further negotiation if there’s evidence of it being detrimental to the business.

Good communication. This is key. Encourage employees to be clear about when they’re online, even if working from home. Schedule regular meetings in the office so that teams can catch up on what everyone else is doing. Keep the conversation about the new working pattern open so both sides are given a chance to say what is and isn’t working.

Measure in productivity. Instead of measuring staff by hours input, measure them by their output. What is their business function? Are they achieving it? Are their targets met? Are the teams they work for fully supported? Business objectives differ from role to role, but as long as someone is successfully achieving what they are hired to do, let them do it in a way that ensures they are well and happy.

“How we make it work”

We spoke to two managers in two different companies about how they have introduced flexible working

Katherine, EA Manager at a leading US Investment firm, leads a team now operating a performance-related flexitime schedule

“Until October last year we didn’t have any firmwide policies or guidelines on flexible working (other than a formal one, which wasn’t guaranteed, and was viewed internally as only for working parents or returning mothers). The firm then undertook a huge project last year following feedback from a recent people survey where flexible working stood out as something needing to be addressed in order to retain and attract talent.The firm created a policy on flexible working for day-to-day flexibility, which was launched in Q3 of 2019.

It’s a reason neutral approach, which means you don’t have to have a reason to request flexible working – we want to be inclusive and we’re not only catering for parents. Flexibility for us falls into three main buckets. The first is working from home, whether that be ad hoc or a scheduled frequency. The second is adjusting your hours or your work pattern around the core day, and the third is a reduction of hours, which is a more formal approach as it impacts compensation etc.

There are some eligibility factors – for example, any employee wishing to undertake flexible working would need to be performing well and ‘meeting expectations’ or above. Having a performance-related element to it helps to manage it.

There are other guidelines I put in place to help manage it too. For example, staff have to provide myself and those they support two full working days’ notice before they work from home if they’re going to do it ad hocly, unless there is a home emergency. And they need to be visible, even though they’re not physically visible. For example if they’re logging on at 8am, sending an email letting people know they’re available, and emailing when they’re going on their lunch break to say what time they’ll be back online will help promote confidence and make it successful.

The result? A more engaged workforce. If you want to retain good staff and you want to retain and maintain a diverse and inclusive workforce, if you want to retain returning to work parents, then you should be considering it. And if you want a resilient workforce – and mental health is a big topic right now – then I think you need to be transparent about that part of it too.”

Emily MacKinnon, Head of Sales at SecsintheCity, has been trialing a different format for her team, who now work 9-day fortnights

“As a company, we tried to think about what we could do that would boost productivity while improving the work-life balance of our team. As a department we’re very lean, so giving our people free reign over the hours they work and where they work from was never realistic for us. Instead, we decided to trial a 9-day fortnight where half the team works Monday to Friday the first week, then Monday to Thursday the second week, and the other half works the opposite pattern, so the office is always covered.

Slightly earlier starts and shorter lunch breaks mean that we are still working the same hours but having every other Friday off gives staff something to look forward to and a day to do all those life admin bits that can be hard to do when you’re working full-time.

There are a few rules we had to put in place to make this work. People aren’t allowed to swap their days off, so once you’re on the rota, you’re locked in. And no one is to have any client meetings on a Friday. We have had to make sure that both halves of the department can manage any leads from other brands, candidate queries or anything else that could come in on a Friday.

At the end of the three-month trial there were a few things that need to be ironed out, but broadly speaking, the 9-day fortnight works for us and our people are excited to have it. They still get 22.5 days of holiday per year, so an extra 26 or so Fridays off as part of their allocated package is a fantastic bonus. And for us, it prevents our staff from asking to work remotely when they have an appointment or a need to be at home, because they have that tenth day to do what they need to do.

Ultimately, it gives us an edge over competitors when it comes to recruitment, as well as giving long-standing members of staff another reason to stay.”