Flexible Working, is it so bad for Small Business?

May 29, 2012

The Government proposals to press forward with employment law reforms and extend flexible working rights to all employees has met with uproar from many small business owners and their representatives.  The commonly held view is that the government is reneging on its promises to support small business growth by making life tougher yet again, and introducing more red tape and an expectation on small employers that they have the resources to manage a flexible workforce in the same way are large businesses and corporates do.  As with the existing legislation, the proposals  only offer the right to request, not the right to receive.  This gives employers a fairly easy opt out of they can produce a business case that allows them to refuse such a request, although it must be said that the need to follow due process is not negotiable under the existing regulations or the proposals to extend them.
No-one would attempt to argue that for many business sectors, flexible working for some groups is simply not an option.  Retail outlets open for business between specified hours or working interdependently on manufacturing  or FMCG production lines simply creates a logistical impossibility for employers who are dependent on their employees working to a rigid timetable.  However, let it be noted that for the vast majority of businesses, employers need not be constrained in this way, and operating a flexible approach to the working hours of employees might just be a way of engendering loyalty, motivation and commitment that could make a real difference to your bottom line.

Let’s just step out of the box for a moment.  Historically, the boundaries of work and life have always been clearly defined.  Typically, we associate working  hours around a 9 to 5 five day a week working pattern.  Businesses have built themselves around the premise that these are standard working hours and that employees and customers alike will respect these and be expected to work accordingly.  Over the past few years, these boundaries have been blown apart by the growth of online activity and remote working and the opportunities that this presents , and we are now living in a very different world, where there is an expectation that business can run 24/7 and that there is flexibility all around us in the way we live our lives that surely makes life easier for everyone?  Within that model, surely there is room for flexibility in small businesses without threatening productivity?

There’s a very successful company in the US that embarked on an experiment several years ago  that allowed its employees to set their own working hours, holidays, pay and other working conditions. They found that employees self-regulated to the extent that the company’s growth became exponential in the first year, and continued to grow in this way through the motivation and commitment of its staff as the experiment became established practice within the business.  Hard to believe, maybe, but that might just be because we have to shed our ingrained beliefs that we all will do as little as possible for as much as possible, given half the chance. Can this really be true? Motivational theory suggests not, and this example proves that Maslow may just be right.

We have all come to value our downtime, family time and an employee who feels that their employer values them enough to accommodate their particular needs is surely likely to respond by expressing their appreciation by offering loyalty, flexibility and a desire to do a good job for you?  We no longer succeed by waving a big stick at our employees and instructing them to work harder.  The world has changed – we are talking about working partnerships, let’s make this work for both of us and we will both benefit from the results.    If we as employers are not able to follow through this approach, then we can be sure that the best candidates will be attracted away from us to those employers who do.  And is it really such an impossible thing for us to consider, are we justified in swimming against the tide  – however small we are?

For more information on the Employment Law reform proposals,  or  to receive a copy of our Flexible Working Policy Document for your business contact lia@hitchinhr.co.uk or call Jenny on 07974 314312. To register for our FREE HR Healthcheck go to www.hitchinhr.co.uk/hot-topics