Your flex work policies; are they fit for purpose?

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In March 2020 so many employers sent their staff home, asking them to find somewhere they could work safely from. For a year we have all marvelled at how adaptable and resilient our people have been, how amazingly well the massive working from home (‘WFH’) experiment has gone. People have worked the hours they’ve needed to and at whatever times of the day or night they could manage. They have done the jobs required of them.

With this recent history in mind, how does your flexible working or WFH policy look? My guess is that most flex work policies still contain much on the statutory language that was introduced 18 years ago when the right to request flex work was first introduced (for working parents). Does your policy presume a default five days a week, office based, 9-5 work pattern? Does it set out a lengthy process for making requests to change the pattern with trial periods, review meetings and detailed sets of grounds on which applications can be declined? That’ll be because, like so many workplace policies, it apes a statutory framework, it was primarily designed to ensure the employer is compliant, not that the employees feel valued and engaged.

In his new book Value(s) the remarkable Mark Carney recounts how, in an early meeting as Governor of the Bank of England he met with experts assembled to select a woman to replace Darwin on the £10 note. He was a little shocked to hear that he needn’t worry because the Bank couldn’t be found to have discriminated against anyone, because the dead can’t be discriminated against. It rather misses the point though doesn’t it – perhaps in the same sort of way as you flex work or WFH policy might. It’s not about avoiding being sued, it’s about something bigger.

Imagine a junior employee is thinking of asking to work flexibly. Imagine they’ve spent the last year perched on their bed or jostling for laptop space round the kitchen table with flatulent flatmates. How equitable would your policy feel to them? ‘Oh yes I remember the trial period you insisted on in April 2020’. Or maybe they’d bridle at the idea that their request to work flexibly might be turned down because it could have a detrimental effect on the ability to meet client demand. ‘Well it hasn’t, has it, not over the last year!’

In a couple of meetings with clients recently I’ve been asked the same question: ‘what are policies actually for?’  The correct answer to that is itself a question: ‘what do you want them to be for?’  You don’t have to have them. I think they are there primarily to encourage consistency of approach. But there is a big piece too about setting out your culture, what sort of employer you are. How seriously you actually take things like respect, belonging and inclusion. Those ideas may be an integral part of your values, but if your policies trot out statutory requirements and are centred on things you should avoid doing – offences if you like – how does that look?

Most policies were originally drafted by…… people like me – when I used to work as a lawyer, rather than where I work now – in a consultancy dedicated to creating kinder, fairer, more productive workplaces.

So, we’ve looked at our suggested standard. We’ve called it ‘how we work’. If you’ve ever wondered why you’ve got separate flex work and WFH policies, the answer is simple: they were a response to different legislation. They weren’t drafted with how your people would like to work in mind; what would make them feel included or that they belong. Please ask to see our standard if you’re interested. We’ve also got others, on things like workplace behaviour (rather than harassment and bullying).

These are just a few bullet point thoughts.

  1. If you’re focusing on belonging, think about how you’re writing; use the words you and we.
  2. Bring everything together in one policy: where, when, and how you/we work.
  3. Start with a positive statement about how everyone (you, the firm, the client) will benefit is everyone is working in a way that suits them best.
  4. Possibly link this to your commitment to inclusion?
  5. Reference what has been learnt during the Covid-19 period and how important it is that we all build on that learning.
  6. Perhaps set out the firm’s current ideal [it could be hybrid working with perhaps 2-3 days in the office?] Say that as restrictions are lifted, the firm will update its position.
  7. Have as the central operative clause that everyone should agree with their line manager the manner in which they will work for the foreseeable future. Encourage everyone to document this in some way and to seek HR’s guidance if they need it or if they are struggling to come to an agreement.
  8. Mention every employee’s statutory rights, but possibly more in the manner of a cereal packet: ‘your statutory rights are unaffected’. All you need to say is that the process we’ll follow if your request amounts to a statutory request will 100% comply with the statutory requirements. But don’t set the requirements out here – they are boring and they make you look like an employer that’s interested in compliance.
  9. Set out some principles that you’ll use whenever you consider a request. Definitely say that some jobs require people to be at work in order to do them and also that there are very real benefits to working from home, just as there are benefits to being in the office, particularly at certain times in your career. Set out some of those benefits – both ways.
  10. Set out the overriding goal – probably that we all achieve working arrangements that enable our wellbeing and to reach our full potential. That’s what this is all about after all. This is a massive part of inclusion and belonging and we need to see it as such.

I’m sure that there will be some more boring, boiler plate type stuff in your existing policies that will need to be reproduced somewhere. The thing is, if you put that stuff in after a page and a bit of what I’ve set out above, that looks like sensible small print, rather than the policy itself.

Do get in touch if you’d like to see our standards. This is the moment to dust those policies down.

If you'd like to learn more about how we're helping organisations make the shift to the hybrid workplace, join us for our webinar on 29 April: Summer of ‘21 and beyond: the human-centred workplace.

You can find more resources and information about how we're helping organisations with the shift to the hybrid workplace here.

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