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Flexing your workers

With plans to give employees the right to flexible working on the horizon, how prepared are you? 

In April 2011 new legislation came in allowing fathers to share leave entitlements with the mother following the birth, or adoption, of a child. This was the first step in a series of planned reforms to help parents manage their work/life balance. Through its Modern Workplaces consultation, which closed on August 8, the Government is now pursuing further modernisation of parental leave. One consideration is a universal right for all employees to request flexible working.

Also since April this year, employers have no longer been able to issue notifications for compulsory retirement, meaning people who reach 65 – previously the default retirement age – can carry on working if they wish.

More employees are likely to ask to work flexibly in the coming years. So how well positioned are fashion businesses to take these changes on board?

Legitimate concerns

Audrey Williams, partner and employment law expert at law firm Eversheds, says: “Many retail employers have successfully embraced the right for certain roles or in certain parts of the business. Even so, accommodating part-time working or job share arrangements for certain posts, particularly those requiring continuity, can also present real difficulties. Other employers worry about how to deal with multiple and competing requests when not all can be accommodated.”

The first thing to emphasise about the statutory right to ask for flexible working is that the right is merely to request, not to have the request acceded to, says Williams. All requests must be given serious consideration but the employer can refuse on grounds such as the burden of extra costs, detrimental effects on ability to meet customer demand, inability to reorganise work among existing staff or to recruit additional staff, or detrimental effects on quality and performance. “So if an employer has legitimate concerns over the request and these are reasonably held, it will be within its rights to decline the request,” she says. A common reason in retail might be the need for continuity in the role due to customer relationships. And those with managerial responsibilities might need to be accessible during full working hours.

In fashion, many employers offer flexible working already. For decades, part-time work in stores has provided a lifeline for busy mums returning to work, students and older people. In fact half of all retail employees work part-time, according to sector skills council Skillsmart Retail. Increasing numbers of head office jobs can now be worked flexibly too – part-time, as job shares, with time off in lieu, and even with the option to take sabbaticals in some companies. In the online world, Asos staff can work flexi-time, and apply for a sabbatical; and staff at maternitywear etailer Isabella Oliver can work from home in certain circumstances.

Lara Collins, group talent director at Arcadia Group, says it is committed to offering flexible working arrangements to its employees to improve the quality of their work/life balance. “We believe this also benefits the company in that we gain a committed and engaged workforce,” she says. “Our workforce is predominantly female and we recognise that they often have childcare or other caring responsibilities to deal with outside work.”

Specific working arrangements that Arcadia is prepared to consider are part-time working, job sharing and flexible daily start and finishing times, and these are accommodated whenever practicable. “Flexible working applications are open to parents of young or disabled children and those with caring responsibilities for dependent adults as required by law,” says Collins. However, Arcadia also invites applications for consideration from all of its employees who are not covered by statutory provisions providing they have been with the company for at least six months and have a satisfactory performance rating.

The company has procedures in place to ensure all requests are made through a formal application process, which is the same for all the categories of flexible working arrangements. “It’s important that we deal with all requests in a timely, consistent and fair manner at all times,” says Collins.

Business benefits

Retailers with a robust policy on flexible working like this will be in a good position to adapt to any legal changes coming through, says the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). “The truth is that many employers – large and small – have anticipated the Government’s proposal and are willing to consider requests from any employee,” says Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser at the CIPD.

“They see the business benefits of helping employees balance their work with their lifestyle and personal commitments, at a time when organisations need to be driving competitive edge through their people. Organisations have grasped the reality that an employee who gives everything they can within flexible working hours offers more than someone reluctantly working a ‘typical’ working day because that is all that is on offer.”

The CIPD thinks that extending the right to request flexible working to all employees is long overdue. “Restricting it to groups of parents and carers creates a mistaken assumption that flexibility is a perk that is good for some but not others,” warns Emmott. Many employers find that a better work/life balance has a positive impact on staff retention, and on employee relations, motivation and commitment. High rates of retention mean you keep experienced staff who can often offer a better overall service.

Recruiters in the sector certainly see how positively job candidates respond to companies that offer flexible working arrangements, and note how these tend to have good retention figures, and more engaged employees. “It takes time to recruit, train and develop staff who are successful in your business,” says Shelley Pinto, managing director of recruitment firm Fashion & Retail Personnel. “In order to retain them as an employer you have to be flexible.” She says there are part-time roles in head office support functions at Austin Reed, M&Co and Gio-Goi, for example, and notes that Boden is good at offering staff flexible working hours.

Doing their home work

But flexible working is difficult to accommodate in certain roles. “In general within buying and merchandising this is not normally on offer,” says Pinto. “And retailers tend to be more flexible at a junior level for sales staff, less so for management, because their input is needed on a full-time basis.”

Employers will need to think about offering a host of options around flexible working in the future, so if part-time isn’t possible for an area manager, how about a job share? Home working might also be a way to ease the pressure on family life, so retailers in the future might need to put in place means of monitoring work carried out remotely.

Flexible working can be a genuine business benefit for companies of all sizes, but to facilitate it fashion businesses will need to rethink many of their procedures and policies. To avoid the system being abused, communication about boundaries, expectations and rules must be clear, and line managers will need the tools to keep track of the productivity of their teams, wherever and whenever the work gets done. 

How to offer flexibility

  • Part-time working
  • Flexi-time
  • Staggered or compressed working hours
  • Job sharing
  • Shift swapping
  • Self-rostering (choosing your hours)
  • Time off in lieu
  • Term-time working
  • Home working/teleworking
  • Sabbaticals/career breaks

How flexible working can benefit employers

Many employers believe flexible working makes good business sense and brings the following improvements:

  • Greater cost-effectiveness and efficiency, such as savings on overheads when employees work from home or less downtime for equipment in 24-hour operations.
  • The chance to have extended operating hours, for example later closing times for stores.
  • Ability to maintain a higher level of skills because the business can attract and retain a skilled and more diverse workforce. Also, recruitment costs are reduced.
  • More job satisfaction and better staff morale.
  • Reduced levels of sickness absence.
  • Greater continuity, because staff who might otherwise have left are instead offered hours they can manage.
  • Increased customer satisfaction and loyalty as a result of the above.
  • Improved competitiveness, such as being able to react to changing market conditions more effectively.

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