The future is looking flexible

Virgin has recently declared its employees can now take as much holiday as they like, whenever they like, as long as their absence does not damage the business and they remain on top of their workload… In essence this means its employees can work truly flexibly, with the option to take a few hours off in a day, a week, or even an entire month’s leave as and when they see fit.

With advances in technology, employees are increasingly answering emails and find themselves “on-call” during evenings and weekends.  In return, they may seek to take the odd afternoon off to tend to family or other obligations, rather than rigidly being in the office 9 – 5.

As it becomes impossible to track exactly which hours employees work, should employers still track the hours they don’t work?

The statutory right to request flexible working was recently extended to all employees with 26 weeks’ service, having previously only been available to those with caring responsibilities.  Although the employee’s right is to request flexible working (rather than a right to work flexibly) and to have their request dealt with in a reasonable manner, this change is likely to inspire more discussions between employers and employees about changing traditional work patterns.

While in some businesses there may be no scope for flexibility as employees, in other cases it may be worth considering and may even result in an increase in productivity. In a competitive market place, candidates compare more than just salaries, and the freedom to organise their own time will be enticing and is likely to attract the best talent and retain it. Allowing employees to work at different places, times or in different ways may give them a greater sense of ownership of their work. This may actually foster a greater focus on achieving results while working, inspiring their loyalty and accountability to the business in return.

Offering flexibility also can make it easier for employees to maintain their roles around other commitments, such as collecting children from school or studying for qualifications, meaning valued employees are less likely to be on the lookout for alternative opportunities.

Flexible working may even promote new  and more profitable business practices – for example, having employees who prefer to work in the evenings rather than mornings may give your business the edge over a competitor who cannot service clients past 6pm, especially once your customers and suppliers start to operate more flexibly themselves.

It is understandable that some employers see the increasing pressure to offer flexibility as a threat to the way in which their business works. Clearly the scope to which flexible working can be offered, if at all, will depend on the business in question.

The “no-policy holiday policy” operated by Virgin will not suit many workplaces, including where a minimum number of staff are required to service clients or meet deadlines, or where time input is directly related to product output, such as in hospitals or factories. Additionally while some employees thrive on this freedom and their productivity increases accordingly, others may not have the self-management necessary to work effectively without a more rigid structure.

However, entertaining flexible working does not necessarily mean allowing employees to do whatever they like. It could involve simply having a conversation to consider a solution or compromise that works best for everyone, which may ultimately increase morale, stability and productivity. Of course if the proposal does not make business sense you are allowed to say no.