There’s no denying that as a working population we are experiencing the throes of a revolution – and a flexible one at that. The concept of flexible working is one that is rapidly emerging, resulting in the adaptation of the traditional workspace as we knew it.
Rapidly advancing technologies are making it easier than ever for professionals to work remotely, on the move and reduce the need for a business to run its operations entirely under one roof 9-5, seven days a week.
The number of employers offering work-from-home options increased from just 13% in 2006 to 59% in 2011, according to the CBI/Harvey Nash Employment Trends Survey 2011. Indeed, its most recent survey in 2012 also spoke of the flexibility of the UK’s labour market, believing its freedom has made the country a good location for sizeable international projects.
Flexible working has psychological, financial and business benefits and these all result in heightened productivity and efficiency. Finding the right work-life balance is something we all strive for and can be one of the biggest challenges any entrepreneur faces when starting a business. Flexible working hours, whether that means working alternative hours or at different locations, may help to strike this balance.
One of the many reasons entrepreneurs start their own business is because they feel stressed and restricted by conventional working hours, particularly if they have young family commitments. The ability to work outside the office and keep your fingers on the pulse is a positive for both employees and employers.
Small-business owners concerned about the bottom line are also welcoming flexible working because it is proven to be good for businesses, too.
The Department for Work and Pensions produced a report on the effects of flexible working on employees and employers and it found a marked reduction in costs as a result of fewer people missing work or leaving their positions. Similarly, 58% of small-business owners recorded notable increases in productivity within their workforce.
Flexible working has made business increasingly global. Firms can entertain the idea of spreading their net further than ever before by travelling overseas for client pitches and meetings without the fear of taking their eye off the ball back at headquarters, with email, apps and the cloud improving connectivity in ways we could never have imagined just a couple of decades ago.
The growth of business hubs and fewer business owners demanding central office locations, combined with the continued use of smartphone and tablet devices means professionals can increasingly take responsibility for finding their own work-life balance.
Guest blog supplied by Generator, one of Europe’s fastest-growing hostel accommodation chains, with eight locations across the continent.
Flexible working isn’t right for all businesses. Call centres, for example, can only function with a traditional workplace structure in place. For creative and consultancy-based disciplines, however, you can match and even exceed productivity by giving your staff greater flexibility. In our quest to be a better employer – and get the most out of our staff – we’ve learned a few lessons we wanted to share.
Teams that perform knowledge-based roles can work pretty much anywhere they can get reception and plug in a laptop. For that reason, we have a developer who works 300 miles away and barely steps foot inside our Stockport-based offices. Similarly, I’m only in the office two days a week, spending the remaining three beavering away from my home. All the work gets done, though, no matter where we are located.
However, we need our distribution staff to work in our warehouse to set hours, it’s the only way to meet delivery deadlines. Flexible working for this function is just not an option.
If you’re adopting a more flexible hours/location approach, you’ll need to revise your line management model, and the solution for this is to replace a hierarchical structure with a flat one.
This means instead of employees measuring their progress by their peers, they measure their own achievements against KPIs (key performance indicators) you’ve agreed with them.
There are three reasons for having a flat structure. Firstly, it’s purely practical. If your employees are working out of the office, they no longer have peers constantly within sight to use as benchmarks. Secondly, they become more concerned with their own development than their colleagues' – reducing time spent on office politics, increasing time spent on development. Thirdly, you are both very clear on what you expect from them.
Thanks to today’s technology, you and your team can be virtually in the same room, even though you’re physically miles apart. Meaning there are lots of ways combine the benefits of working from home with those of being in an office.
For example, I work at home for three out of five working days each week. But Google Hangout allows me to virtually work side by side with colleagues who also work at home. We turn the camera off (as we have no interest in being in our own reality show!), but keep the sound on so we can talk through issues in real time, update each other on projects and ensure we have a healthy amount of banter to keep us sane.
We’d also recommend ensuring you’re in constant communication with your team, even if you’re working remotely. Each morning our senior team ‘meets’ for a 20-minute call so we can discuss the previous day’s activity and agree plans for the day ahead. It ensures we’re all working in sync.
Finally, we’re huge fans of Google Suite. It’s a fantastic tool with a series of apps that allow you to collaborate on one project at the same time and save files to a cloud. Meaning there’s no need for a hard drive, jobs can be are completed much faster and gone are the days of 23 versions of the same document.
We all know that a project’s success is due to the productive hours put in – rather than the minutes clocked up with bums on seats. Just because someone appears to be at work does not always mean they are!
But we know from talking to some of our ‘old-skool’ contacts, it can be hard to trust that staff are working when they’re ‘working from home’. So we’re huge advocates of KPIs. They enable you to set targets and measure progress, leaving you to trust your employees to get on with their work. If they’re hitting the numbers, the work’s being done – and it doesn’t matter if they’re working from midday until 6am or from their second home in Spain.
Replacing a traditional workplace structure with something more fluid has delivered two key benefits to our business. Firstly, our time has increased. We no longer have to deal with the endless ‘can I leave early?’ questions, which zap time that can be better used.
Secondly – and most importantly – staff are happier, more relaxed and able to achieve a better work-life balance. By trusting them, they respond with greater productivity, resulting in a win-win for everyone.
Blog supplied by Sean Blanks, marketing director of Cartridge Save Ltd (“the UK’s largest reseller of ink and toner”).
Research published recently by office-space provider Regus suggests the number of UK businesses who would take on working mums if they were recruiting has fallen significantly in the past year.
More than 1,000 UK businesses were surveyed and only 26 per cent said they would hire a woman with children, compared with 38 per cent last year. According to Regus: “With 43 per cent of firms saying they plan to increase employee numbers this year [itself quite a remarkable statistic], the proportion intending to recruit working mums is worryingly low.”
Sadly, when asked for key reasons, the same tired, old excuses (not reasons) reared their ugly heads. Some 38% fear “working mothers may show less commitment and flexibility than other employees”; while “31% believe working mums will leave to have another child”; and “17% are worried that women who return to the workplace will have out-of-date skills”.
Why are so many UK employers still stuck in the 1970s with their thinking when it comes to women with children? I’d wager that many of respondents were male – whadya reckon? And behind most successful businessmen, usually there’s a dutiful wife tucked away in the suburban background, who’s quietly looked after the kids and home for years.
Women seemed damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Most working mums I’ve worked with over the years could give many of their colleagues lessons in commitment. Trying to balance a career with childcare is no small challenge. Most families these days can only get by on two incomes, so many women have no choice but to return to work after having children – they do so out of necessity, not choice.
And while many women are allowed to work fewer days after having children (employers who facilitate such flexible arrangements take a bow), most working mums feel under added scrutiny and immense pressure to achieve the same results. They could give lessons in working hard, too. Many working mums try to cram as much work into their reduced working week as they did previously, which can eventually takes its toll.
The use of the word “flexibility” by respondents is interesting. This, of course, usually means willingness to habitually work for no pay. Surely by now we all know it’s about working smarter, not longer? And if your business really has to rely on employees’ willingness to work for free, you’ve really got problems. As long as people work the hours for which they are paid, employers can’t really complain.
On a more positive note, again according to Regus, 67 per cent or those surveyed said employers who ignored the potential contribution returning mothers can make are “missing out on a significant and valuable part of the employment pool”.
More than half (51%) regard working mums as “offering skills that are difficult to find in the current market”; and (revealingly) 45% value returning mothers because “they offer experience and skills without demanding top salaries”. (The implication being that some employers believe these women are just glad to have a job, so they won’t ask for pay parity with male colleagues.)
Generalising is a foolish and dangerous act. It’s certainly not my personal experience, but I’m sure there are women who show less commitment and don’t work as hard after they return to work after having children. In many ways, it’s a natural consequence. But as with any other employee, if there are problems with a working mum’s punctuality, attendance, productivity or quality, then your business should have processes and mechanisms to resolve them.
Some women will soon leave again – either temporarily or permanently – to have more children, and this often creates headaches for business owners and managers. But not taking on women with children or women of a certain age for fear they will soon have children isn’t the answer.
It seems some employers still have a lot to learn when it comes to the two-way streets that are commitment and flexibility.
Employer relations minister Ed Davey has announced an extension to the right to request flexible working, which will allow 288,000 more parents to have their requests to work flexible hours formally considered by their employer.
Davey has also revealed that the government is preparing a consultation on a universal right for all employees to request flexible working, saying: “We want to make sure the law better supports real families jugging work and family life, and the businesses that employ them.”
But what do small businesses think? We asked Matthew Jones (MJ), founder of Open Study College what he feels about staff having flexible working hours.
MJ: “We employ 20 people and currently allow many of them to work flexibly if they wish to. It boosts staff moral and leads to a more relaxed working environment. Some of our staff commute a reasonable distance to work so we also allow people to work from home during bad weather; it’s safer for everyone and ultimately means they aren’t spending unnecessary hours travelling.”
MJ: “We run a small office so absent staff always have an effect on us. We do have to be aware of presence for time-sensitive roles, but providing our customers don’t suffer and the work gets done on time we look auspiciously at requests for flexible working from staff with or without children. Increasing the age limit will have a minimal effect on our business.”
MJ: “Flexible working can be a very positive concept providing it is fair, managed and controlled. It leads to a better working environment and more motivated staff. It also makes us appear forward-thinking to our customers and suppliers. It can sometimes be a pain when trying to book meetings and ensuring staff are available, but this is a small trade-off when you consider the benefits. It can help greatly with day-to-day activities such as booking doctors’ appointments and takes the stress out of having to wait for an after-work slot.”
MJ: “The government has been clear that flexible working is not compulsory, but whether this will filter down accurately I can’t say. But we are clear with our staff regarding what is available to them and it seems to work well.”
MJ: “I believe that there’s an inherent problem with childcare and how society deals with it in the UK. While laws and guidelines have been put in place to support parents, it would seem that “childcare” by its very nature has not changed much for a long time, in terms of the hours in which children can be looked after. I would also like the government to help on the other side of the coin, too, with the children themselves, as I don’t believe an employer should be completely responsible for the entire burden of childcare.
“Unfortunately, with today’s strain on purse-strings many families find it hard not having a two-parent income when bringing up children, so we try and do what we can for our staff. It certainly won’t affect our staff here because they already receive these benefits.”
Not all business owners and managers are in favour of giving the right to request flexible working, however. Charlotte Williams of recruitment and HR company Novalign told us:
“The new law could have a negative impact on some small businesses who may feel pressured to accommodate requests for flexible working. This could result in additional and possibly unaffordable costs, inability to compensate for employees with flexible working hours and a detrimental impact on the business’ performance including failure to respond to customer demand.”
What do you think? Please leave your comments below.
The Start Up Donut’s week-long celebration of mums who run businesses – mumpreneurs, kitchen table tycoons, business mums, businesswomen, call them what you will – is over for another year. What did we learn?
People don’t necessarily like to be labelled, so do we need a term to define this group? Is it necessary for people to know you’re a mum or is the fact you have children irrelevant?
The discussion surrounding the term ‘mumpreneur’ on our forum threw up some interesting opinions.
On the one hand, business women such as Laura Rigney are proud of the ‘mumpreneur’ tag. She said: “It takes an awful lot of determination and dedication to start a business from scratch and then continue running it while doing the everyday things that come with being a mother”.
Emily Cagle disagreed, saying: “The main issue for me is the irrelevant categorisation of a business owner (who happens to be female and a parent). People tend to mean well by using the term to recognise the challenges mums often face, but I think it's generally unhelpful.”
There will always be disagreements over such things, anyway, if Cara Sayer is right, the term 'mumprenenur' will undoubtedly go out of fashion”. Other terms, such as ‘kitchen table tycoon’, were also disliked, it must be said.
We also invited guest blog posts from business mums last week and it was interesting to see the common themes: the importance of being resourceful; effective time-management; the need for multi-tasking; the need to start up on a shoestring; remain flexible; and being adept at prioritisation of time and tasks.
The lessons learned when managing a family and various school runs, mealtimes, hobbies and bedtime routines can be very useful when running a business.
You can see from the case studies that we’ve featured on the site, such as April Browne who runs Crystal Jewels, that despite much competition for their time, many mums continue to be inspired to start a business, while for some, such as Claire Willis of SnugBaby, necessity is still the mother of invention and the basis for many new mum-owned enterprises.
At the end of the week, I asked an open question on Twitter aimed at all business mums: “What was your inspiration for starting your business?" These were just some of the replies:
These were broadly representative, with the vast majority related to having enough flexibility to look after children while still providing for the family. Starting a business seems to be the perfect solution for women who want to continue working but who also want to spend time with their children while they’re small.
On a personal level, it’s been really nice to be in touch with such a lovely group of people who’ve been so helpful and really got stuck in with the discussions.
I’d like to say a special thank you to our blog contributors and to everyone who retweeted, commented, said hello and helped to spread the word. Although Mother’s Day has been and gone, our support for mums running their own businesses will continue throughout the year.
Anna Kirby, BHP Information Solutions