Leaders’ toolbox: how to deal with flexible working requests

By on 01/04/2022 | Updated on 01/04/2022
Two women having a one-on-one meeting in an office
Make sure to arrange face-to-face meetings with members of your team so nobody feels excluded. Photo by Christina Morillo via Pexels

People may wish to work reduced or different hours or in a non-office location for any number of reasons, whether it’s because they’re struggling with their mental health or caring for an elderly relative. Meena Karawadhra takes us through a number of scenarios in which team members’ request to work flexibly, and provides tips on how leaders and managers should assess each situation and come to a decision that is fair and inclusive  

Meet Kim everyone. Kim has been with the organisation for five years. Kim is a quiet but reliable member of the team. Kim is a reflector who turns up every day, interacts with the team and gets work done. They are reliable, meet performance standards and generally get on with it. Everyone should have a Kim on their team.

Kim is a very private person – they talk little about home life and don’t socialise much outside of work hours with the team.

One day Kim approaches you and asks about working flexibly. What are your initial thoughts?

  1. What is flexible working?
  2. Why and how?
  3. Why now?
  4. No, I don’t want change – it’s going to affect the team and productivity
  5. Arghhhh!

Let’s unpack these thoughts and analyse.

What is flexible working?

The UK government defines flexible working as “a way of working that suits an employee’s needs”.

The option to request flexible working was introduced by UK government in April 2003 when parents and certain carers could apply to work flexibly. In 2014 that right to request was extended to all employees provided they had 26 weeks of continuous service with the same employer. There are organisations that are campaigning to make the right to request applicable from day one of employment. This would mean that employers would have to think about the job description and criteria as well as role specification more carefully and from the outset. Not a bad way to start also thinking about unconscious biases, creating intent about diversity and inclusion, and moving away from recruiting people “in our own image” which brings with that mindset the problems of groupthink

Flexible working is not one thing anymore. It moves away from the usual 9-5 working day and core hours working approach. It can involve working flexible hours, different hours, different days, reduced or otherwise, compressed hours, reduced week, job sharing, term-time working etc. It aims to help employees enjoy a work-life balance and to help people who have other responsibilities or commitments outside of work.

Before deciding on requests to work flexibly, the employer needs to make sure that they have dealt with the request in a ‘reasonable manner’. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) – a non-departmental public body that aims to improve working life – has a code of practice which details in legislation the reasons you may reject a request. If you do reject the request, there is an appeal process that needs to be made available to the applicant and there is also a three-month time limit within which a decision needs to be made unless agreement to extend this period is reached with the applicant.

Legislation in the UK and the policies that employers have on flexible working have been updated since the pandemic hit. Employers have had to become more creative and flexible where they can simply to survive and so COVID-19 has led to other changes and options in the way of working including hybrid and remote working, synchronous and asynchronous working. This enabled people to work from home and gave many the flexibility to juggle childcare (remember home-schooling anyone?) and other caring responsibilities.

Read more: Together apart: embedding successful remote working practices in the public sector

Why now, and how?  

In the UK, based on statistics, women do most of the unpaid care work in the UK which means that the majority of flexible workers are women. Women can therefore be disproportionately affected by issues like gender pay equality, progression, workloads etc if not managed well and inclusively.

Let’s get back to our case study. Kim may have asked to work flexibly because of:

  1. Caring responsibilities following on from parental or maternity leave or looking after relatives, for example.
  2. Disability. To enable them to travel outside of rush hour because of a disability.
  3. Work-life balance and maintaining wellbeing.
  4. Rehabilitation. To enable them to recover from a long-term health condition. This may involve a phased return.
  5. Attending treatments.
  6. Approaching retirement and wanting to slow down.
  7. Any other reason.

What might get in the way of you accommodating the request?

Perhaps when Kim asked your reaction was “Arghhhhhhhh!”. Maybe your thoughts were “where do I start?”. Okay, usually if you have HR on speed dial that is a great shout. Get a copy of your organisational policy and if there isn’t one, then ACAS have some really helpful information. That will give you the guidance you need to help you work through the process and record what is needed. Most importantly it needs to start with a conversation with ‘your’ Kim. So really, a little brushing up of your knowledge should solve that one. Easy right?

‘It’s going to affect the team and productivity’

According to CIPD (the professional body for HR and people development) research:

“The productivity benefits of homeworking appear to have increased during the pandemic, with employers now more likely to say that the shift to homeworking has boosted productivity (33%) than they were in June 2020 (28%)”

and

“Overall, more than two thirds (71%) of employers say that the increase in homeworking has either boosted or has made no difference to productivity.”  

If the evidence is showing that flexible working is good for people and good for business, what are the barriers?

Leadership, the culture of your organisation, and trust

Traditionally, culture can be built around these mindsets:

  • “This is the way we do things around here.”
  • “We want people to fit in.”
  • “We never had access to these flexible working opportunities so why should anyone else?”

Yet we want diversity and inclusion. Is this really something that people understand or is it simply yet another tick-box exercise?

Numerous articles and papers citing research shout about how having a diverse and inclusive workforce affects the bottom line. Despite this, there are still negative and stereotypical comments made in the workplace which affect perceptions of people in the organisation who work flexibly. It also affects self-perception i.e. those who wish to work flexibly. You may have heard some of these comments and judgments/opinions:

  • “Working mothers.” It’s less common that we hear about working fathers or carers.
  • “Part-timers are not committed.”
  • “They do not have time to take on high-profile projects or travel.”
  • “They have young children; they are not going to need the additional stress of ‘x’.”
  • “Working from home while juggling a baby on your knee?”

When an organisation has leaders that not only demonstrate but also role model (for example, by working from home themselves) and ‘live inclusivity’ they build connections and trust people. When leaders show they are human and they connect and engage then they create a spark that psychologically ‘strokes’ and says, “Yes, I see you” and “Yes, I hear you”. This as opposed to only operating the heartless mechanics of process. When you build those relationships, ultimately you are building trust and an environment where others are encouraged to do the same. That is powerful and influential.

Are you ready to lead? Our perceptions of Kim’s world are subjective and based on our own experiences and mental models, and are therefore clouded by judgment, opinions, our own values, and beliefs. If we can suspend these (if they are in our awareness) then we stand a good chance of listening empathetically to Kim. We decide then to truly listen and have a conversation about flexible working. This enables us to be curious, to hear Kim, and to try and fully understand Kim’s situation.

So armed with a notepad and pen (electronic devices also work), you arrange to see Kim in a quiet (and appropriate) space privately.

You might start with creating that psychological safe space to help Kim to open up: “Are you comfortable? Would you like tea, coffee? How are things?” Make it clear that you want to understand more about Kim’s request to work flexibly. Remember to avoid the ‘why’ question (it may make Kim feel they are having to defend their right to ask).  

Kim tells you that they are trying to juggle so many things and then stops. Okay, get your coaching questions hat on and start to explore using open questions to encourage Kim to tell you more and to allow you to take a glimpse into Kim’s world.

Read more: Tip of the iceberg: public sector leaders on the shift to remote work and what more is to come

Communication skills come into play

People often talk about communication skills. It is a competency requirement for many roles from the recruitment stage. It is regarded as an important skill in almost every aspect of every relationship, business or otherwise, yet how well do we actually communicate? Can we even define what is effective communication? When we communicate, we usually want to deliver a message and make sure it is understood. Sounds one way? That’s right – it is. Our message, our perception and our world. The recipient then has to take in that message and contextualise it in their own world. How do you know they have understood? Have you understood their world to help them?

Communication is two-way where understanding is aided by a will and the decision to understand. One of the biggest avoidable mistakes causing conflict is a lack of empathetic communication. Back to Kim…

Kim, you discover, has been meaning to ask for part-time hours for a long time. Kim has been trying to look after themself, but their stress levels are high as Kim’s partner has been recently diagnosed with a long-term and debilitating illness. Kim is also a parent to two young children under the age of seven. Kim feels stretched, isolated, and feels the walls closing in. Kim wants to work reduced hours – a late start and early finish – that will enable them to collect the children from school as their partner can no longer do this. So far, Kim has relied on parents to help but they are now retiring and moving to a nice house on top of a hill the coast, about a four-hour drive from Kim. Nice for the parents. Not so great for Kim in their current situation.

Great going with the listening and empathy to get Kim to open up, by the way. So, your intention is to help Kim, of course. After all considerations, the working pattern can be shifted, as actually, when looking at Kim’s role you find that elements of what Kim does can be combined with some elements of other jobs to create a new post that would help everyone and reduce the team’s workload and pressure. It is a total win-win.

When one request follows another

Next: how are you going to manage because you now also have a request from Baraka to work remotely two days a week?

What are your thoughts now?

  1. Bring it on, I am “acing this leading and managing” stuff.
  2. What is happening? I am losing control of the team.
  3. The team is falling apart.
  4. One asks and they all want it.
  5. How am I going to manage a team that’s all over the place and time?

If your thought was number 1; excellent – way to go. 2-5? Let’s look at some strategies:

Leading a team is more than just saying to a group of people “you are a team; now go and perform”. You are part of that group of people and you are leading them to perform. To do that, apart from the usual leadership stuff like vision and direction, they are looking for an environment in which to thrive and be innovative and productive. To do that they need your trust and, face it, you need theirs. How do you create that synergy, psychological safety, and allow people to be their authentic self so that it doesn’t matter where they work or the hours they work as long as they produce outcomes?

Have regular team meetings with everyone included, if possible, and every now and then arrange a face-to-face so that people in the team have the opportunity to connect and are not forgotten. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ can affect people’s perceptions of how hard someone is working and of course visibility gets individuals noticed for the exciting initiatives they’re working on. Unlike in the smoking rooms of old where all the decisions were made over a cigarette and everyone else was excluded.

Meetings over different platforms with the technology now possible and constantly improving is such a progression from ‘the old days’. This is enabling collaboration from different parts of the business and removing geographical barriers and the need to travel. When done well the results are engagement with others, and teamworking.

The decision to allow Kim to work flexibly means their motivation levels will be elevated – what a great employer that makes you. Kim tells Sukhi at a barbecue what an amazing employer you are, and Sukhi makes a mental note to apply to your company. Baraka tells Sam the next time they meet over a coffee that being able to work from home and not having to waste time commuting has made life so much easier and that being able to connect and collaborate with colleagues by having some ground rules set by the team is working well. Sam is looking to move to another company where they hope to stay long-term, as there is low morale in the current work environment and a high staff turnover. They are inspired by Baraka’s story of how your organisation has wellbeing policies and practices in place to support remote working, including virtual coffee mornings and virtual social catch-ups, as well as operational catch-ups and regular one-to-ones.

Flexible working is good for employees and therefore good for operations, business, and reputation. Not considering requests fairly risks employment tribunals and reputational damage – doing so can help to attract and retain staff.

Avoiding isolation

We do, however, need to be mindful that we do not leave anyone feeling isolated, whatever their working patterns.

Meet Torri. Torri has worked from home since joining the organisation. Thoughts:

  • “They must love it.”
  • “Does Torri even exist?”
  • “What a lucky so-and-so.”
  • “Poor Torri.”

Torri lives in a bedsit since moving to this country and because of COVID setbacks has not yet managed to move to better accommodation a commutable distance to the office. Their workspace is effectively also their living space.

We know that COVID has affected everyone, and some people have had real losses. Many people’s mental health has been affected adversely.

It is so easy not to think about Torri. Particularly as Torri is not a vocal member of the team. They are a bit shy and introverted and not at all assertive. Torri needs the confidence to be able to reach out and speak openly about the challenges of homeworking. They work longer hours, and harder, and need to be able to switch off. And they find it difficult to live in a bedsit. Looking after their wellbeing, both emotional and physical, is key. You could help them by:

  • Pointing them to some of the resources that can help them including any Employee Assistance programme.
  • Putting them in touch with the HR team.
  • Arranging ergonomic checks for health and safety while they are working from home.
  • Pointing them to wellbeing apps.
  • Showing them NHS wellbeing sites.
  • Connecting them with work resources including any workplace wellbeing initiatives.
  • Inviting them to team events.
  • Arranging support and chats with their line manager.
  • Putting them on courses to support their remote working that focus on how to schedule the work based on goals and objectives, and plan and take breaks, for example.

Everyone has a story if they are encouraged to tell it

The point of these case studies is that everyone has a story if they are encouraged to tell it. How much they share with you is dependent on how much you share with them. Trust, compassion, and kindness are the building blocks needed to get a team to engage and work together in collaboration. To do that people need to feel safe. You might not be able to accommodate a request for flexible working for a genuine business reason but be fair and transparent and make sure you explain the decision-making process. Otherwise, we end up in a situation where the Kims, Torris and Barakas in our teams feel they way they might be perceived and how they might be treated – such as reduced opportunities to progress – are barriers to them asking to work flexibly.

Agree goals and outcomes and check-in with employees. This will help to create that balance between supervision and trust. When you have trust, you have engagement, and when you have engagement, you have people performing and you create an ease of doing business.

Engagement is two-way. It’s not just about employees engaging with employers but the other way around too. When that happens, you notice when someone should be at work, you care to enquire and stay in touch. You are more likely to notice a change in behaviour when someone does not appear to be themselves and can reach out to check on their wellbeing.

If you spotted the neutral gender pronouns while reading through the case study and realised that the context could apply to anyone then you are already aware of some of the pitfalls of unconscious biases. If you have are aiming to create synergy and a diverse team, diverse thinking, and diverse working patterns to achieve a common goal then congratulations, you are creating a high-performing diverse and flexible workforce.

Meena Karawadhra delivers a number of training courses for Global Government Forum. Her seminars, which can be all be tailored for in-house bespoke delivery, include Wellbeing and Stress – Building Resilience in Remote, Hybrid and Office-Based Teams and Building Trust, Collaboration and Productivity in Remote Teams.

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