How UK companies can improve their flexible working policies

For many ambitious working mums, finding a rewarding flexible job, or agreeing new flexible terms on their pre-baby position, is sometimes the only workable solution to continuing their career while raising their family.

But how easy is it to continue your career on a flexible basis today? And how are UK companies changing to meet the needs of valued (and valuable) employees at a critical time in their careers?

Ten2Two asked 700 working mums

To find out, flexible employment specialists Ten2Two conducted an online survey of over 700 registered members from across London and the South East in October 2013.

Reflecting the general profile of the Ten2Two Member base, respondents to the survey were typically professional females aged between 35-54, largely working in the private sector for medium to large businesses.

Over 75% of respondents had the primary responsibility for childcare or organising childcare for their family – reflecting the majority of the UK workforce managing the ‘double-shift’ of work and family care.

Why is flexible working important? 

It will probably come as no surprise to learn that finding rewarding flexible jobs is highly important to ambitious working mums. But offering flexible opportunities is vital to businesses too.

If an organisation fails to adopt realistic flexible working policies, they risk losing experienced and loyal employees – possibly to their competitors – and face the expense and inconvenience of recruiting and training suitable replacements.

Flexibility in the workplace – more effort needed

The research revealed that, while flexible working features in the majority of organisations, in reality many businesses have actually become less flexible, leaving significant room for improvement. But why is this?

It was encouraging to see that just over 86% of respondents currently in work felt that their organisation was ‘visibly flexible’ (they see people around them working flexibly and the company, including senior executives, talking more openly about flexible working and promoting the options for employees).

However, digging a little deeper, only one in four respondents said they felt that flexible working was truly embedded across all facets of their organisation. And when you focus on larger businesses, this number drops to one in five.

It’s still a relatively encouraging figure, given the challenges of the recession and UK economy – the research showed that where some companies used flexibility to ease financial issues whilst maintaining performance, many retrenched to older ‘controlling’ management practices.

What improvements can be made?

Ten2Two members’ responses highlighted three key areas of potential improvement: 

1) Fair opportunities for career progression

Nearly a third of respondents felt that although their organisation was flexible, working flexible hours affected their prospects of progression and promotion within the company. This figure increased to just over 42% of respondents working in larger businesses.

Several Ten2Two Members expressed their frustration that it was the hours they were working, rather than their contribution to the business that was determining their future:

“My employer assumes I’m no longer ambitious just because I’m working flexibly. That’s not true at all. I’m still the same person I was before and probably adding more value now than I’ve ever done.” 

“Working flexible hours means you become ‘invisible’ in the organisation. They think flexible working is the only thing important to me now.” 

This indicates that while some organisations have been offering flexibility to retain their best people, this hasn’t extended into performance and talent management, where achievements and potential is recognised and talented people can continue to progress within the business irrespective of the hours they work, or their working pattern.

2) Making flexibility formal

A further one in three respondents also suggested that while flexible working was evident in their organisation, it was only being offered and managed informally. (This number reduced slightly for larger businesses where policies tend to be managed more formally.)

Turning an informal process into something that’s formally recognised and managed is an opportunity for businesses to fully realise the value of flexibility. Formal recognition and management also reduces the risk of employee dissatisfaction and the grievance issues that arise through inconsistent application.

The research showed that some companies adopted a tactical approach by offering flexibility on the condition that employees agreed to change their terms of employment. This included a switch of status from employee to self-employment, and employing people on short-term, renewable contracts:

“I went from being an employee to self-employed to gain the flexibility I needed to cope.” 

“We are all contractors or freelancers, dictated by the work we do, not the time it takes to do it.” 

While companies often use this approach to ‘prevent setting a precedent’, it risks the loss of an employee’s loyalty, while their employer liabilities remain.

3) More flexibility needed – not less

Given the high percentage of organisations offering some form of flexibility, it was surprising to learn from the research that that 64% of employers have actually become less flexible in the last 12 months. Only 36% of respondents had seen an improvement in the level of flexibility on offer.

Positive perceptions were influenced by visible improvements in flexibility such as more people around the office working flexibly (20%) and more active promotion of flexible options by the company (15%).

38% of respondents felt the lack of flexibility was inhibiting their company’s performance, with employee satisfaction, customer service and attracting the best people being cited as the main areas of impact.

Comments made as part of the resarch also indicated a lag between the intention of the employer to be a flexible business, and good practice on the ground:

“They don’t do what they say they do. It sounds good on the website but it doesn’t really happen in practice.” 

“The company has the perception of being flexible, but in practice management are not.” 

Flexibility is the key to attracting and retaining talent

The vast majority of respondents claimed that flexible working is important to them, with 87.8% stating that the availability of flexible hours is a very important aspect of their job.

Just over three quarters also said that flexibility was becoming more important to them. This reflects the age profile of the survey respondents, and the fact that childcare becomes more challenging as children move from private childcare into school-hours education.

The importance of flexible hours becomes even more evident when considering that over 75% of respondents declared that a change or restriction in their flexible working structure would force them to consider leaving their job.

An opportunity for businesses to do more (and benefit) 

Ten2Two hopes their research will help businesses to understand the needs of a highly skilled and experienced section of their workforce, and realise how performance and talent management can work more effectively in a flexible environment. And in doing so, formalise flexible working practices to help the whole organisation benefit.

Read more about finding a rewarding flexible job

Want to find a rewarding flexible job? Or make a formal request for flexible working in your current role? You’ll find some helpful advice in these articles:

You can also read how one global company successfully manages flexible working in this interview with board director Siobhan Martin.

Ten2Two specialises in flexible and part-time working. They help local businesses find talented, high-calibre professionals who can work flexibly – and offer women rewarding, flexible jobs that use their skills and experience.