Can your business afford it - or can it afford not to?
It is relatively modern concept that we travel to work, spending two hours (or more) each day in our
cars or on public transport. This way of working really took off in the industrial age when many
industries moved from being home-based services or home-produced goods to large factories or
offices located in city centres. Since the post-war period, many more women have joined the
workforce and our transport systems (as we all experience) are struggling under the daily pressure of
As our cities have grown and housing costs have increased (especially in London) it is often not
possible to work close to home, particularly when just travelling from more affordable areas to the
city centre takes at least an hour. In London alone, millions of commuters join the daily rat race
every morning. Even the government wants businesses to consider offering employees the
opportunity to work from home to ease the burden on the deteriorating transport systems.
For those of us who work the daily nine to five (or more likely nine to seven!) and experience the
joys of being stuck in someone’s sweaty armpit on the tube, and then getting home too late to see
the children before bedtime, or too tired to cook a proper meal or visit the gym/friends/etc., how
often do we wonder why we do it? It might seem like there is little choice if we want to be
economically active and pursue our hard-won careers. This is because “flexible working” is often a
dirty word to business-owners.
So why, when we have technologies to support alternative ways of working, do many employers still
feel reluctant to implement, and indeed actually fear the concept of flexible working, worrying that
it will mean anarchy and chaos in the workplace, loss of control over employees, failure to service
clients’ needs or worse still, loss of productivity and profits.
Many employers don’t step back and look at the bigger picture. There are many different options
that employers can consider implementing from all-inclusive flexible working policies to limited
flexible working opportunities to ad hoc arrangements. Not forgetting of course their minimum
legal obligations to consider requests for flexible working, allow time off to care for dependants,
undertake training etc. - all businesses should get legal advice about these.
By offering choices to employees as to how they manage their time, attendance at the office, and
workload, an employer can:
- instil a level of trust and confidence in their staff
- make them feel valued and appreciated
- get the best out of people
- improve absenteeism
- increase productivity
- make better use of resources (including office space)
- reduce their carbon footprint
- and overall create a happy workforce.
A happy workforce is consequently:
- more loyal to their employer (improving staff retention rates)
- more motivated (improving productivity rates)
- more committed to their job (working longer hours)
- more hard-working (reduced absenteeism)
- more likely to represent the business positively to clients/ customers/the outside world
It follows that a workforce that spends fewer of their waking hours commuting (in an armpit or
otherwise) is one that is more likely to:
- be happier (see above)
- be healthier (as we all know, being run-down makes people susceptible to illness, not to
mention the transmission of cold and flu viruses on public transport)
- have a better work/life balance (with better family relationships and/or social life)
As a result of having a happier workforce, your business reputation improves, your standing
increases amongst your clients/customers and industry/competitors, and overall your profits
These conclusions might seem overly simplistic, but there are workforce studies that support the
benefits outlined above. Indeed, Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA) report that 50% of
employees say that given the chance, they would like to work 1-2 days week at home.
How green are you?
Another factor to consider is your business’s green credentials. Reducing travel and expenditure on
office premises reduces carbon emissions, and this is good for the environment and a useful
marketing tool for environmentally-conscious clients. AWA report that “Cost- and carbon-reduction
are currently significant drivers for many organisations, and the smartest ones are already planning
an employee-to-desk ratio of 15:10, cutting excessive, expensive office space by as much as 40 per
cent. The future of the office is that it will no longer exist in its current form.”
What if I am not ready?
Whilst AWA envisage a large-scale cultural change in working practices in the future, involving allinclusive
flexible working practices that allow employees wide-ranging opportunities to work from
home, hot-desk in other offices or business “hubs”, change or reduce their working hours, etc.,
many employers just don’t feel ready to go the whole hog and adopt such generous flexible working
practices, at least not for the time being. They are afraid of the cost, the impact of change on the
workforce, their ability to provide a seamless service. Not all job roles are suited to working flexibly,
or at least only to a limited extent. In fact, it is this limited extent which employers often don’t think
What if you offer some limited flexibility to employees?
- Just enough for your business to benefit to some extent from the advantages described
- Just enough so that it does not impose a financial burden on your business?
- Just enough to suit your particular business and the service you provide to customers?
- Just enough to ensure you comply with the law?
It doesn’t have to be “all or nothing”, and you should get some legal or HR advice about what sort of
limitations you could impose, and when a refusal to agree to flexible working could be
discriminatory or otherwise unlawful.
What if you offer just “ad hoc” home-working?
“Ad hoc” home-working differs from permanent flexible working in that instead of an arrangement
whereby an employee works one day a week from home as a regular pattern, employees can
arrange to work from home on an “as and when” basis but are otherwise based in the office. This
can just be adopted on its own, or be a first step for putting more flexible arrangements in place in
the future. It can also be implemented alongside a wider flexible working policy which applies to
Let’s look at a typical example - an employee needs to wait in at home for the boiler to be repaired.
With an “ad hoc” flexible working practice, they have two options.
Option 1 – Take annual leave
o Your business loses the benefit of their work for half a day.
o Since it is leave taken at short notice, another employee has to cover the work who
is not familiar with it, takes longer to complete it, and worse case, makes mistakes
that need to be rectified by others costing your business time and money
o Or the employee in question has to complete the work the following day, is already
behind with their workload and trying to catch up, is under greater pressure, and
worse case makes mistakes or goes off sick with work-related stress
o The timescale for production of the work has to be extended, and the
commissioning client is dissatisfied, possibly withdraws their business for the future
and worse case tells others to avoid using your business.
o The employee resents having to use up their holiday for the sake of the boiler when
they would much rather save it for a) school holidays b) that skiing trip they have
planned with friends or c) some much need relaxation time at Christmas with their
family and so it forms a splinter in your employer/employee relationship.
Option 2 – Work from home
o While waiting for the plumber to arrive (which as we all know could be at any
time!), the employee continues working on the important document that your
client is waiting to be completed
o Your business provides a continuing service and maintains its high standards
o Your client is satisfied that the work is completed to the agreed timescale
o Your client recommends your services to others, which in turn leads to more
o Your client pays their bill on time (and does not quibble) so your cashflow is
o Your employee is pleased that their employer adopts such a common-sense and
flexible approach to the situation
o Your employee feels trusted, valued and important to your business
o A stronger relationship of mutual trust is forged between employer and employee
You might think that these are extreme or exaggerated examples, and option one is certainly not
intended to be an argument against annual leave per se, but it seeks to demonstrate the possible
impact that unplanned absence can have on your business.
Equally, working from home is not suitable for every type of job role – traffic wardens or flight
attendants for example might have trouble arguing for home-working, even on an “ad hoc” basis,
but for many job roles it can be a reasonable and sensible solution to situations when employees
cannot make it into the workplace, even if it is not adopted as a general policy.
A recent study by Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA) looked at flexible working practices at
several large organisations. It concluded that after introducing a system of informal home-working,
the organisations had reduced sickness absence and higher performance and morale. Many found
that introducing “ad hoc” homeworking helped managers be more accepting of more formal
permanent arrangements for flexible home-working.
This form of practice is suitable for situations such as when employees cannot get into work due to
severe weather conditions or transport disruptions, or where their childcare arrangements break
down or their child is sick (there is also a legal obligation in this instance, so getting legal advice is
essential). In principle, where the employee is willing and able to work but cannot make it into the
office, it makes sense to allow them to work from home rather than taking a strict stance and
withholding pay or forcing them to take annual leave. It also goes a long way towards good
So how do you make it work?
There are several key things to remember if you allow “ad hoc” home-working, or indeed any other
more permanent flexible working arrangements.
- Trust your employee - Only you as a manager or business owner know your employees and
if you trust them to keep to their side of the arrangement. You could always do it initially as
a trial and make it subject to review. Make sure that an employee working from home feels
just as valued as one in the office, and that their work is just as important to the business so
that they maintain motivation.
- Agree clear objectives - It is helpful for both you and your employee to know and agree on
what is expected of them during the time they are working from home. Targets can be set
based on various criteria, and need not really differ from those that apply when they are in
the office. You can discuss and agree on the evidence (if any) that is to be provided by the
employee. This may be simply logging in and out times on your remote computer system.
You should build any off-site practices into your existing performance management systems.
- Ensure workplace acceptance - Make sure through training and company communications
that home-working is a positive thing, that it is open to all employees to request and that
requests will be considered fairly and consistently. For employees in the office, ensure that
they give the same support to off-site colleagues as to on-site ones. Don’t forget about
employees who are not there in front of you – out of sight should not be out of mind! Train
your managers to be adaptable in their approach and to help you move your business away
from the traditional and towards the progressive.
- Enable the employee in practical terms - Have you set up secure password-protected
remote access to your computer systems to enable the employee to work from home? Are
you offering the same level of management support and access to company resources that
the employee would get in the office? Make sure that home-working employees are
included in emails, meeting invites, etc. Enable telephone conferencing or Skype where
possible. Your investment in appropriate systems will be rewarded in the long term.
As a business, you probably already have some facilities and arrangements in place to enable a more
flexible approach. For instance if you provide your employees with laptops or smartphones, if they
work “on the road” as part of their job (from trains or cars) and link back to the office, if they share
desk-space or work from time to time from other locations, offices or venues. The impact on your
business need not be as significant as you might think. In fact, the positive impact may take you by
Gelbergs Solicitors is based in Islington, London N1 and offers a comprehensive multi-disciplinary HR
advice and employment law service to employers. We would be happy to hear from any business
owners who would like a free assessment of their employment contracts, and HR policies and
procedures, or who would like to discuss implementing flexible working practices in their business
but don’t know where to start.
Call us on 020 7226 0570 and ask for Emmajane Taylor-Moran or Jane Manville. Our website can be
found at www.gelbergs.co.uk and twitter at @gelbergs