Growing up with flexibility

Small businesses in the UK are leading the field when it comes to flexible working. Large organisations are more likely to have formal policies in place, but a much higher proportion actually work flexibly in businesses with 10 or fewer employees. Journalist Julie Tomlin explores why.

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Cats CradleThe high prevalence of flexible working amongst Britain’s SMEs seems to have grown, in the first instance, out of necessity. Workload is often volatile and finances precarious, so a permanent staff working 5 days a week just isn’t helpful. It works better to keep staff time closely pegged to output.

Veronica Wint, Recruitment Director at Timewise Recruitment, reports that her clients from smaller businesses frequently look to hire quality part time staff: “Let’s face it, when a new business reaches the point where it needs a Marketing Director for the first time, it rarely needs that level of seniority for more than a few days a week. And it certainly can’t afford the full time salary the role would demand.”

Wint adds, “SMEs can do very well through part time and flexible recruitment. They can access top skills for the pro rata salary that’s within their budget.”

Adam Marshall, Executive Director of Policy and External Affairs at the British Chambers of Commerce, agrees. He adds that by hiring people into part time or flexible roles, a small business can also expect to reach a larger talent pool and attract experienced candidates, including those with a ‘portfolio career’ or family commitments. “You can often get skills and talents that you might not otherwise be able to get in your workforce, and you also have the potential to attract individuals to your business you might not be able to take on for full time, nine to five work,” he says.

The obvious choice for entrepreneurs

To a large extent, flexible working grew out of small business, as a way for entrepreneurs to balance other commitments during the startup phase. Linda Aitchison, Managing Director at the Marketing Room, resists the ‘mumpreneur’ label, but says it seemed natural to work flexibly when she was juggling bringing up a family with launching the West Midlands-based creative marketing agency 10 years ago.

“All but two of our team are mums of children now aged from seven to 16, so we have worked hard to create opportunities for flexible working,” Aitchison says. “Being widowed means that I have more responsibilities within my family on a practical level than before, so I finish early on certain days to be at home with my children after school, but I make these hours up at the weekend.”

Flexible working can take many forms, including part time, job-sharing or splitting, home and teleworking, or freelance work. Some people work staggered hours, enabling them to work full time, but with different start and finish times; others work compressed hours, fitting in the standard contractual hours over fewer days.

“Not everyone will undertake a revolutionary redesign of the way they fill vacancies and the way they approach work, for some it’s as basic as allowing individuals to work at home as and when they need to,” says Marshall. “The majority of small businesses that operate flexible working do so because it makes good sense for their business and enables them to get the best out of their workforce.”

Performance and employee engagement

As small businesses grow, it can be easy for them to retain a strong culture of flexible working, as they’ve grown up with it and understand its benefits.

Simon La Fosse’s technology search firm, La Fosse Associates, has a staff of 70 and has been fourth in the Sunday Times Best 100 Companies to Work For for the past two years.

Allowing staff to do things in the way they want to do, that fits around their work schedule and family commitments inevitably reaps results, he argues. “Nobody came to work to do a bad job and you have got to remember that, so it’s easier to just give as an employer, and you find it comes back in spades,” he says. “The person who knows they are being trusted by you to do the right thing, invariably will do the right thing.”

A more flexible approach and even different skills are needed to manage teams who work flexibly, with a focus on employee effectiveness and output rather than simply clocking in and out. But La Fosse believes that this is a vital part of a successful business, anyway. “Any company that hasn’t got systems in place to measure output is a company that’s totally out of control,” he says. “Just making sure everyone turns up at the right time and stays late is lazy, rubbish management, really. It encourages presenteeism, which I think is appalling.”

It’s precisely this kind of culture change that small business owners and their employees are best placed to lead, Marshall insists. “Where we see it being a business and employer-led proposition, flexibility works fantastically,” he says. “Employers and employees are perfectly capable of coming together to develop different ways of working that allow both to get maximum benefit.”