Adele Kimber looks at how organisations are helping line managers to supporttheir staff with flexible working policies‘It’s a good idea but it won’t work here’ is a common retort from managersconfronted with a difficult task. And for HR professionals trying to promote aflexible working culture, it is the response they often hear from line managersfaced with making the policy work in practice. New laws giving staff with young children the right to request flexibleworking presents a double challenge for the HR profession. Beyond the obviousresponsibility to meet the legislation, HR teams have an opportunity to gobeyond compliance and deliver a flexible working strategy that improves theirorganisation’s competitiveness. Winning the hearts and minds of the linemanagers is a crucial part of that challenge. Line managers will be the first point of contact for most employeesdiscussing a flexible working request. Research published last week (March 25)by lobby group Parents at Work, found that the request for flexiblearrangements was put to line managers in 93 per cent of organisations, whoeither made the decision alone (46 per cent) or jointly with HR (50 per cent). But research published last year by Roffey Park management school, arguesthat the prejudices of managers and those working full-time is still one of thebiggest barriers to flexible working. The report, Work-Life Balance: The Roleof the Manager, found that regardless of company policies, managers are likelyto have the most direct effect on the work-life balance of staff. “When managers feel empowered by the organisation to allow their staffflexibility, they tend to encourage their staff to work in such a way as toachieve personal as well as work goals,” says Roffey Park researcher, ClaireMcCartney. She points out that many employees view the attitudes and behaviour of theirimmediate line manager as a good indicator of the culture of an organisation.Managers who feel the organisation does not give them the autonomy to makedecisions about how and when their team can work, are likely to be uneasy aboutallowing unusual arrangements, because they are simply not confident enough tomake the call. The Roffey Park report argues that the single most important ingredient indeveloping and sustaining a culture supportive of work-life balance, is supportfrom the top of the organisation. Marilyn Tyzack, diversity specialist at the Work Foundation, agrees. Shestresses that ensuring senior level support for flexible working policies is criticalto winning line managers over. “It’s no good just having good policies inplace – you must mean what you say,” she says. Lloyds TSB diversity consultant Ryan Lynch, says that work-life balance isnow established as a business issue at the bank. This was only achieved bytop-level commitment to the cause and by the bank playing a part in talkingpublicly about its importance. The bank’s Work Options scheme, which allows all employees to apply forflexible working, has been in place since 1999, and now one-third of the bank’s76,000 staff work flexibly. At motor giant Ford, leadership from the top is playing a part inestablishing a formal flexible working policy. Annette Andrews, diversitymanager responsible for work-life issues at Ford Europe, says the companyrecognised that employees needed flexible working arrangements, but thechallenge was convincing line managers that it was a good idea. “We put the business case into a strategy document arguing that theworld of work is changing and we can use it as an opportunity,” saysAndrews. Senior management bought into the idea and Ford Europe is cascadingthe principle down the organisation. The Parents at Work report, Right to Request, points out clear businessbenefits – such as cost savings and higher returns, improved service delivery,recruitment and retention of staff and legislative compliance – as importantfactors to highlight to managers. Tyzack says that a pilot or trial period gives an opportunity to actuallyprove these benefits to line managers. Metrics gained from a pilot or a casestudy from elsewhere in the business will help to build the case. “If you want to have a policy that goes beyond compliance with the newlegislation, you also have to be clear about the business needs. You have tomeasure that and show how the business will benefit. Communicating thosebenefits clearly and consistently to line managers is key,” she says. Lloyds TSB has a website and an HR call centre providing information to linemanagers, but Lynch says it is always looking at new ways to engage them. Aflexible working interchange site was launched last November to provide a forumfor information and discussion. “Our job is to give managers the tools to manage effectively. Therewill be some changes in the process with new legislation, and part of thechallenge for HR is to manage expectations of what this will mean inpractice,” he says. Helping managers to gain the right skills to cope with flexible working is akey factor. McCartney points out that many of the skills needed to manageflexible workers are good basic management skills. “Line managers need to be good at scheduling work and setting cleargoals and targets. Trusting staff and creating a culture that empowers thembecomes even more important,” she says. MicrosoftMicrosoftstaff who want to work flexibly apply directly to director of people, profitsand culture, Steve Harvey, rather than to their line manager. Harvey says thisensures a consistent approach. “A lot of managers say no instinctively soI am the first point of call,” he says.Harvey guarantees a one-week turnaround on a decision.Employees complete a simple document setting out their request, with details onthe business reasons and how they can support the arrangement. Harvey thendiscusses the request with the local HR manager, relevant director and theemployee’s immediate manager. He says that many of the difficult management issuessurrounding flexible working have been eased by Microsoft’s Superteam concept,which was launched two years ago and heavily implemented during the past year. Three of the four levels of staff at the company have alreadybeen through the training process, beginning with the executives and theirteams. The idea of a Superteam, which can be a permanent, project orvirtual team, is to set out clear expectations for the performance of all itsmembers. At a formal team session, theleader says who they are, what they do and what they expect from the team. Eachteam then sets clear goals for each member, based on output, not the hoursworked. Harvey says that the drive to create a flexible working culturehas made ideas such as the Superteam even more important.”There is a clear contract with an employee setting outwhat they are expected to deliver. The approach makes it much simpler to managepeople who are working flexibly,” he says. South Oxfordshire CouncilLinemanagers at South Oxfordshire District Council are taking part in trainingsessions to understand the council’s drive to create a flexible workingculture, and how its policies dovetail with the new legislation.The council introduced an annualised hours scheme at thebeginning of the year in a bid to help its staff balance their work and homelives. “Some managers, particularly those running frontlineservices have had some concerns about how the scheme will operate, and it isthe line manager who has to agree any new pattern of working. We want toencourage staff to talk through new working patterns with theircolleagues,” says the council’s head of HR, Trevor Hill.Each employee is now contracted to work a specified number ofhours per year, instead of measuring working time over a week. Hill says themove gives the company’s 250 staff more freedom to change their workingarrangements to suit their home lives. Flexible working options available aspart of annualised hours include term-time working and nine-day fortnights. Part of the training includes setting up case studies so linemanagers are more aware of the positive aspects of being more flexible, and cansee how it works in practice.Hill says most of the benefits to staff in the first threemonths have been short-term ad hoc benefits, and staff now feel morecomfortable asking for time off. Ford EuropeWork-lifeworkshops, run by the senior managers of each business unit, were used by FordEurope to kick-start its flexible working policy. Many of the motor giant’semployees have worked flexibly for some time, but the company launched a formalpolicy late last year. “The workshops were used to say to line managers ‘we areempowering you to work with teams to improve their work life balance’,”explains diversity manager, Annette Andrews. A variety of communication tools are used to promote the idea –an in-house magazine, websites and the company’s in-house TV station all runinformation on flexible working, and include role models and interviews withpeople working flexibly.”We have worked hard to make line managers as aware aspossible of the policies,” says Andrews. Managers have access to a toolbox setting out just how tomanage and implement policies, such as the practicalities of managing staff whoare telecommuting, or how to make an employee part-time. Andrews says thetoolbox helps line managers fully understand and take ownership of theiremployees’ working arrangements.A flexible working pack is published which duplicatesinformation available on the web. Both include an application form that helpsstaff to set out why they want to work flexibly, how they will make the newarrangements work, and how it will impact on the business. The aim of the formis to create a structured conversation between an employee and their manager.Flexible working is not yet on offer for manufacturing staff,but it is planned for this year. “It will be very challenging to get thedegree of flexibility that we want in a shift environment on a productionline,” says Andrews. Previous Article Next Article Comments are closed. Achieving the right balanceOn 1 Apr 2003 in Personnel Today Related posts:No related photos.