On Take Your Daughters and Sons To Work Day, family and business matters will merge, as parents are encouraged to introduce their children to the workplace. The model of the family is one that applies well to small firms. Most SMEs are family-like, containing just a handful of employees, everyone co-existing with the pressures – and benefits – that such proximity brings. And, of course, many enterprises really are family businesses, with mothers, fathers, siblings and cousins working alongside each other.
Yet, smaller companies are often accused of not being as family-friendly as their larger peers. A third of the UK’s smallest enterprises don’t offer their staff any family-related flexibility, according to research from human resources experts Croner, even though laws exist that entitle many workers with familial commitments to take time off or work flexible hours. Some bosses blame the fact that they lack a dedicated HR person within the business to keep them up-to-date with rules. Others say quite simply that they don’t have the resources of large employers when it comes to accommodating family-friendly policies.
But more people are demanding to take parental leave, work remotely from home during working hours, shift from full-time to part-time hours or flexi-hours, or have a job share. And smaller employers will soon find it harder to deny their pleas. At the end of June, legislation covering the right to request flexible working will be extended to include any employee with 26 weeks’ service with a company. Up until now, only members of staff with children under the age of 17, those with disabled children under 18, or those who are carers of adults have had the right to ask for a more flexible arrangement.
From June 30, bosses will have to consider these types of request for flexible working “in a reasonable manner”. Acas, the conciliation service, has produced some guidelines for employers about what this means in practice. These include:
- Being proactive in addressing the attitudes of the people at all levels of the business to help them understand how and where the organisation could benefit from a more flexible approach.
- Developing a right to request policy so that employees can see what the new rules mean and how they apply to them, as well as giving them the certainty that all requests will be handled in the same way. A written policy should also explain the process of applying to work flexibly, and the likely time taken to consider requests properly. It can detail the appeal procedure, too, if any applications are rejected.
- Explaining to staff the information their application for flexible working should contain. This would include the changes they’re seeking; how they anticipate it would affect their role, and their employer; and making it clear that this is a formal, statutory request.
- Having a discussion with the member of staff about their request, allowing them to be accompanied by a second party if they want a witness to the chat. If the employee doesn’t come to a meeting as arranged, then misses a subsequent rearranged date – without sufficient reason – then the employer can consider the application to work flexibly to be withdrawn.
Companies don’t have to grant workers flexibility if the business can’t sustain such an arrangement, but they have to make a strong argument against, and the reasons for rejecting applications are set out in legislation. If there would be additional costs put on the firm that were more than it could carry, that could be a legitimate reason for saying no to a request. If it would prove impossible to rearrange work among existing members of staff, it could also be acceptable to reject a proposed flexible arrangement. Equally, if the new way of working would require more staff, but new recruits weren’t available to fill this need, that could also be a no. If flexibility had a detrimental impact on the quality of work, customers’ experience, or business performance, the case against could be legitimate. Other reasons for rejection would be if there weren’t enough work during the times that the employee has proposed working, or if structural changes were already planned that would make the new way of working unfeasible.
Saying all this, there are many small companies that see distinct advantages in allowing their staff to adopt more flexible working practices. Past research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has suggested that smaller employers often have flexible workforces by nature, but the arrangements aren’t recognised as such because they are made less formally than in larger companies. This is backed up by recent findings from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which say that employees working for micro and small businesses are significantly more likely to work flexibly than those employed by medium or large firms.
Of course, recent advances in technology, such as cloud computing, high-speed wifi, and the common use of smartphones, allow high quality work to be done quickly from almost anywhere. This has had the result that a lot of smaller firms recognise that they can have both a happy, home-working workforce, and save money on the costs of business premises, too. There’s even evidence that a flexible team is a more productive one. Almost six out of ten SMEs surveyed by the Department for Work and Pensions in 2009 said that introducing flexible working had increased their business’s productivity. Staff retention, better employee relations, and the ability to recruit stronger candidates from a wider talent pool were other compelling arguments.
So, while small business owners must be aware of the new rules on flexibility, they should also recognise what they’ve already done to create a flexible workforce. That old adage that because SMEs are smaller they’re more able to implement change is genuinely true and, in many respects, it’s the small business community that is defining what it means to work flexibly. Look at your business, asking yourself where the flexibility already exists, and whether you work flexibly yourself, then acknowledge your achievements to your staff. And, if you conclude you’re not working flexibly enough, make changes before the law forces you. Because one thing’s for certain, business is only going to be even more flexible in the future, so act now to stay ahead of your competitors – and to maintain the happy family that your enterprise should be.
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