This is an insightful article on flexible working from The Daily Telegraph’s Heidi Scrimgeour.
Scale-ups can reap huge benefits from the agility and cost efficiency of flexible working, but it requires careful organisation and transparency.
More than eight out of 10 employers and employees think that flexible working improves productivity, claimed a recent survey by Vodafone of 8,000 global businesses and staff members.
There are many benefits to such an approach – from reducing overheads to improving staff retention – which can be particularly useful for smaller companies. But flexibility also brings a particular set of challenges when it comes to scaling up.
We asked small business owners for their advice on getting flexible working right when going through a period of growth.
Get systems in place early
An obvious benefit of flexible working for a scale-up is the opportunity to add to the team without incurring extra fixed costs.
Jo Blood, director of office furniture consultancy, Posture People, says that encouraging staff to work from home enabled the business to grow without increasing overheads.
But you have to get the right infrastructure established early, she advises, and be aware that introducing flexible working will invariably “take longer and be more painful than you think”.
“We started planning for flexible working about a year before we needed it – and our main area of focus was IT,” she says. “We slowly started moving all of our main systems onto the cloud, so that we could work anywhere and at any time. This meant swapping our CRM (customer relationship management) system to Salesforce, and moving to Microsoft Office 365.”
The only system that remains in the office is the firm’s accounting package, but that also has a web link so that it can be accessed from anywhere.
“It was hard work, but worth it in the end,” she adds.
Manage capacity carefully
All employees have the right to request flexible working after 26 weeks of employment. Polly Buckland, who runs digital marketing agency, The Typeface Group, encourages entrepreneurs to not only accommodate these requests, but find the business benefits in them.
An advantage of having a flexible team (including full-time, part-time and contract staff) in a scale-up is that it allows the company to work beyond the traditional nine to five. And the business can remain agile as it grows.
It can be a challenge, however, to keep track of who’s working on what and when, and to ensure that you have the right capacity. Ms Buckland recommends keeping a hot desk available for contractors and investing in software to manage staff availability and holidays.
“We use Charlie HR so that managers can quickly sign off holiday requests and view office cover from one dashboard,” she says. “We also have a cloud-based calendar that shows staff availability and project goalposts at a glance, helping us to keep track of progress.”
Trust staff – and talk to them
Trust is integral in a flexible team; staff need autonomy and employers need to be able to rely on them to prioritise tasks and manage time effectively.
However, it takes more than just trust to make it work, says Sian Meades, who runs Gadabout Publishing with her business partner, Laura Brown.
“It’s about good communication and people understanding what’s expected of them – rather than just trusting them to get on with their jobs,” she says.
“We’re never vague about deadlines and stick to our calendars rigidly,” she adds. “It’s the only way to ensure that everyone knows exactly what they need to do. The last thing we want is for people to be unable to complete their work because of flexible arrangements.”
Test, test, test
Flexible working radically improved productivity at online marketing agency, Glass Digital, according to operations director Craig Hall.
“Flexitime was introduced on a three-month trial, so we could ensure that it was having the desired effect before making it a permanent policy,” he says.
A fingerprint scanner was installed to monitor attendance and ensure that the policy wasn’t abused – and the data showed that lateness dropped by 73pc during the trial, while absences were reduced by 12pc.
“The ability to miss rush-hour traffic was cited as the biggest benefit, with the change shaving 15 minutes off the average commute,” explains Mr Hall. A subsequent anonymous survey revealed that 100pc of staff were happy with the change, while 63pc thought that it had made them more productive.
It might not work for everyone
Glass Digital’s flexitime policy allows staff to start work between 8am and 10am, but the whole team is present during the core hours of 10am and 4pm.
“This ensures that we’re working largely the same hours as our clients and contacts, and meetings can be arranged easily,” says Mr Hall. “Senior staff share responsibility for opening and closing the building, making sure that it’s always accessible from 8am until 6pm, and phone calls are answered during office hours.”
The same policy may not work elsewhere, however. Marcus Franck, founder of Franck Energy, advises scale-ups to consider the impact of flexitime on different areas of the business.
His marketing and finance teams work flexibly, but the same arrangement would not be practical for the sales and support teams, he explains:
“They need to have complex conversations with customers and prospects, so they need to be in the same room to support each other as a team, and be available at times that are most convenient for homeowners.”
For businesses that opt to operate different flexibility schemes for different teams, Mr Franck says that communicating the reasons early and in full can “reduce the potential for discontent.
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