Employee benefits: flexible working

Whether it is a desire to contract the hours spent travelling to and from
work or family-friendly government policy, flexible working is a trend that is
well established. According to the Office of National Statistics, the UK has 3.1
million home workers, up from 2.6 million in 2001. And this is not its only
manifestation: adopting a shorter working week, requesting unpaid leave all
increasingly play a part in a changing the working climate.

Companies are increasingly happy to accept the reality of flexible working
arrangements, according to Gary Hull, a human resources services director at
PricewaterhouseCoopers. Long regarded as something of an annoyance, requests for
flexi-time, four-day weeks and home working are now addressed as an

ordinary part of working life. And it is not just individuals in senior roles
who benefit.

Arrangements vary enormously from company to company, Hull says, but
organisations like the NHS and the bigger retailers have, for a long time, found
ways of accommodating family-friendly policies so that junior staff can square
the circle of work and childcare. From evening shifts at Tesco to hospital and
local authority crèches, it is possible for organisations to create a working
environment that pays attention to employees’ needs.

Childcare is not the only driver, says Hull. Within PwC, he sees colleagues
working four-day weeks to fulfil other interests. One colleague pursues
charitable work. Another is a justice of the peace. And, in common with other
accountancy firms, PwC allows its trainees time off for training courses and

The pitfalls

Naturally, there are legal pitfalls. Companies need to exercise care when it
comes to evaluating requests. People with children under five now have a
statutory right to have requests for changed hours considered. Ian Hunter,
partner with law firm Bird & Bird, says that companies can get into problems
if they fail to consider these requests responsibly. Turning them down out of
hand or treating similar requests from other employees more favourably could
lead to indirect sex discrimination claims.

Decisions must be based on a broad understanding of the law, says Hunter. He
has seen instances where managers rule out flexible working on quite an
emotional basis. They might refuse to entertain that certain roles could be
carried out on a part-time basis or as part of a job sharing arrangement, for
instance. Hunter advises companies to set up committees to evaluate these
decisions. ‘You need people who understand the implications of the law, so there
is merit in having a body that can review that decision and to check that
company policy is consistent and sustainable.’

It is undoubtedly easier for large organisations to agree shorter hours or
job sharing arrangements. But Hull says in his experience SMEs are finding there
are benefits to keeping an open mind on flexible working. It is a sure way to
developing a more committed workforce, he says. ‘They often find that they are
getting better value for money out of people.’

Philip Hutchinson, principal with HR consultancy Mercer, says flexible
working can provide a useful bargaining chip for smaller companies on the hunt
for talented employees, because it can be used to offset a lesser salary.
‘Generally speaking organisations would like to offer it because it is more
attractive. Quite a lot of people want time rather than money.’

A less rigid approach to staffing a business has to be handled responsibly
and in a way that doesn’t adversely affect other employees. Resources are scarce
and few companies can afford spare capacity. Customers still need to be cared
for and letters still need to be drafted on a Friday. ‘The biggest obstacle [for
smaller companies] is the logistic one,’ says Hutchinson. ‘In the UK at the
moment most organisations are pared to the bone, so there is very little room to

Flexible working is most easily accommodated in the nine to five office
environment, he says. Financial services, the City and other service industries
are more likely to be ready adopters. In fact, in the City, flexible working
arrangements are now, like pensions, an essential part of the benefits package.
‘It’s getting to the point where individuals will not join an organisation
unless it offers flexible working. People often want time rather than money,’ he


Of course not all requests for flexible working are family related and
demographics are changing. People tend to get married and start families later
in life. A 30-year-old woman of twenty years ago may have based decisions on her
working life on starting a family, and so issues around maternity leave and
part-time roles on return to work would be most relevant. Today, a 30-year-old ­
having already spent some years establishing his/her career ­ could just as
easily request a period of unpaid leave while they head off travelling.

From an employer’s point of view, says Ian Hunter, the issue around gap years
and unpaid leave for travel is often part of the wider question of retaining
talented individuals. The important question here, he says, is discretion. A
manager might want the freedom to offer to keep one employee’s job open for
their return if that person has made themselves invaluable to the business. They
might equally want the freedom simply to invite another person to get in touch
on their return if that individual is very able, but not necessarily

The law will provide for such distinctions, says Hunter, as long as they are
not made for prohibited reasons such as age, race, sexual orientation or gender.
So companies will need to watch out if they find themselves re-employing white,
Anglo-Saxon, protestant candidates rather than people from ethnic groups, for
instance. The burden of proof lies with the company. A claimant would only have
to demonstrate that the facts tend to indicate discrimination.

Hunter explains that companies need to show that they have acted fairly and
in a transparent way. ‘You may want to build some criteria, such as the future
needs of the business or the performance of the individual,’ he says.

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