How flexible are you?

Not personally, you understand!  However, as a modern employer, no doubt you have implemented, considered, or been asked about some form of flexible working practice.  There remains a great deal of variation of flexibility in UK workplaces and the very phrase still fills many employers with concern.

The legal position is that anyone with 26 weeks’ service can make a request to work flexibly, which the employer must consider, but is able to reject for legitimate business reasons.  However, this article is about more than simply your legal obligation, but what benefits flexible working might bring and why it’s not a scary concept!

Recently, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) reported that they considered progress regarding gender pay gaps, as well as pay gaps for disabled or ethnic minority employees, was “painfully slow”.  They set out some recommendations to try to tackle these issues and advertising all jobs as flexible was one of them.  Whilst other areas of work often evolve quickly, there remains a traditional mind-set in many workplaces that sees hours being rigid, homeworking frowned upon, and fears of loss of management control dominate.  At the same time, other employers look to utilise zero hours contracts, or categorise workers as “self-employed”, so it’s clear that certain forms of flexible working which are more clearly financially beneficial for an employer is growing in popularity.   However, look into other forms of flexible working more closely, and you will see a great deal of research pointing to financial benefits for organisations here too.  When people feel happy and trusted at work, they are likely to be more engaged and productive and also less likely to take time off sick.  You as an employer will be able to access a wider pool of potential new employees when you are recruiting, as you haven’t narrowed your field.  It’s also not necessarily the case that flexible working always means reduced hours and thus reduced productivity.  Working at different times, or working compressed hours, means you receive the same amount of output, but with (hopefully) a more engaged employee who you may otherwise have lost.

Clearly, some jobs present more challenges than others to enable flexibility, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s impossible.  Have a think about it, as you may find you get great results.



Zero hours contracts – so are they a good idea or not?

Employment contracts are not normally the kind of thing that regularly make the news however, zero hours contracts have a regular place in the headlines and in the opinions of politicians and much of the general public.  They have again recently been in the news, as the Taylor review, an in-depth review of employment practices commissioned by the Prime Minister, was published.  The report did not recommend the end of zero hours contracts, but did have a concern that some companies were too reliant on such, where they perhaps could offer a more secure alternative to their employees.

Zero hours contracts can be very popular with employees.  One of the most common uses of such a system is bank staff in a healthcare setting, which can fit very well amongst employees’ other personal commitments and offers employers flexibility in covering sickness absence for example, without the cost of recruiting people with fixed hours.

However, by their nature they do not offer much security and this is what has led to some bad press.  If an employer routinely offers such contracts but in fact expects the employees to work a certain number of hours regularly, it is unlikely that zero hours contracts are the most appropriate.  Don’t forget that employees on zero hours contracts have no obligation to accept work, just as an employer has no obligation to offer it.

Remember that those on zero hours contracts, if they work, are entitled to benefits in line with other employees, so they will accrue annual leave, are entitled to be auto enrolled in a pension (if they earn enough) and should receive any other benefits you offer, pro rata to their working hours, where appropriate.

Lastly, employers are no longer allowed to write exclusivity clauses into zero hours contracts.  These are when employers do not guarantee work, but require employees to nevertheless be available for work at all times, denying them the ability to work elsewhere.  It seems clear that such clauses could cause financial hardship and for that reason were banned.  Therefore, employers should be careful when drafting such contracts, as their terms can and sometimes should differ from other forms of employment agreement.

Gender pay gap in the news

The BBC has written its own headlines with the revealing of the salaries it pays to its stars, with its highest earners including household names such as Gary Lineker, Chris Evans, Jeremy Vine and Graham Norton.  Does anything strike you as odd about this list?  Aside from the uncomfortableness the BBC was trying to avoid by revealing such sensitive information, it had maybe not anticipated that a rather concerning gender pay gap would also be thrust into the limelight.  News reports quickly picked up that only two of the top ten earners are women and, for example, a list of female newsreaders were all paid less than male newsreaders with similar experience to their female counterparts, for evidently doing a similar job to them.

While you may be correct in thinking that the BBC has little in common with your own organisation, you may wish to consider the gender pay gap issue a little further.  The legal position is that only organisations with 250 or more employees should publish a report on their gender pay gap, that is, the gap between male and female employees’ earnings.  However there is nothing to stop organisations with fewer employees publishing such a report, or at least internally investigating their position.

There are numerous potential benefits of doing so.……overall morale may be improved just from the fact that you’re keen to look into this and take action if appropriate.  You may uncover a problem you didn’t know you had, in which case you can address it.  Even if you can explain any gap, for example the higher salaries are earned by the senior men in the organisation, and the women have more junior roles in general, you should maybe consider why this is, and are you unintentionally discriminating against women in your recruitment or working practices, thus barring them from the most senior positions?

If you can show an absence of a gender pay gap, or that you have tackled and reduced any gap, this will assist your organisation’s reputation, whereas the opposite, as the BBC example shows, can do serious harm to your name in the wider community.  Female employees have the right to bring an equal pay claim if they can show they have been, or are being, paid less than their male colleagues for doing “similar work of equal value”.  The BBC are no doubt bracing themselves for such claims, however they haven’t been the only organisation in the news over recent years for this reason.  Birmingham City Council and Asda are just two big names who have had to pay significant sums of money to female employees in back pay to retrospectively correct their salaries to bring them into line with male counterparts.

Employment contracts – are they worth the paper they’re written on?

So you’ve diligently issued contracts of employment to all your employees and are confident that everyone has an up to date statement of their terms and conditions.  However there are a couple of people who, despite numerous chases, will not return their signed contracts.  You are concerned that you cannot request they adhere to the terms of their contracts, as they have not accepted them.

Well we like to be able to give you good news now and again, and in this instance, it is not necessarily the case that you always need a signed contract.  Employees are deemed to have accepted their terms and conditions if they attend work, carry out the work, and accept payment for that work.

Of course, this equally means that you cannot disregard someone’s contractual entitlements if they have not signed a contract, so for example, paid sickness absence, if contained in your contracts, remains applicable in such a circumstance.

It is “cleaner” to have a signed contract on file, as amongst other things it proves that a contract was issued in the first place.  The above does not excuse your need to consult and try to reach agreement should you wish to alter contractual terms, however it may hopefully curb the administrative chasing for paperwork.

Can working from home work for your business?

Do you have people working from home already, or do people ask for this?  Is it something you’ve thought about, but are worried about the potential implications?  Are you unsure of how you can manage people if you can’t see them?

There are of course jobs that can’t be done from home, but there are many that could.  If your employees work in front of a computer all day, is there any reason why they have to travel to an office every day, or could that work be carried out at home if they were provided with the correct equipment?

Of course you still require the work to be done, and it must be done on time.  However you may be able to change the way people work without compromising your organisation’s service and quality.    Enabling working from home can significantly improve people’s wellbeing and allow them some flexibility to manage their work and home commitments, whilst still delivering what you need from them.  You may even find therefore, that with improved wellbeing and flexibility comes increased engagement and productivity.  Manage any problems when and if they arise, rather than anticipate that they will automatically happen.

If you do allow home working, it’s important to plan how people will keep in touch with colleagues and the wider business.  Perhaps you allow only some home working, with the remainder in the office, or ask for at least one day per week to be worked from the office, to ensure collaboration still takes place.  It also helps avoid any feelings of isolation that home working may unintentionally foster.

Lastly, consider health and safety of any home workers.  Ideally you should ensure their home workspace is set up in the same way as office workspaces and that they take regular breaks.

Absence of analysis of absence…

Employees going off sick is sometimes problematic, frequently concerning and nearly always something you could do without as a manager.  However whilst we soldier on without the cure for all illness and the prevention of all accidents, a certain amount of workplace absence will occur.  What is your practice on someone’s return to work after a period of absence?  This isn’t an HR call to fill in a return to work form, so that we can reassure ourselves that a form has been ticked and therefore all is right with the world.  However by looking into and using your absence data, you could uncover some interesting insights that have been hiding in plain sight all along.

Do people go off with a lot of back pain, neck pain etc?  If they work at desks, are they set up correctly?  Are they able to move around regularly?  Do people feel it’s ok to take a break?

Are people reporting a lot of stress?  Or numerous more minor issues such as stomach upsets and headaches, especially where this hadn’t previously been a problem?  Does the problem seem to centre on one team, or are you perhaps going through a difficult period as a business and there is a deal of uncertainty present in the workplace?

You may find that by looking into your reasons for absence, and talking to your people, and then making a few minor adjustments, you may find that your absence greatly reduces.

Another thing to investigate is whether there are any potential patterns to absence, for example frequent Mondays or Fridays, always off the day after a bank holiday or following annual leave?  By analysing your data, it could be that you uncover a suspicion that all may not be what it appears to be.  Don’t jump to conclusions – it may not be the case that the absence isn’t genuine, but it is certainly worth some further investigation.

Unable Mabel

Mabel is a long serving loyal employee, having been with your organisation through thick and thin.  Everyone loves her, and she is seen as the “mum” of the workplace.  Although Mabel’s actual contribution may not be as high as others, you have been happy with this, given everything else she brings to the organisation.

However, your organisation is not making the money that it used to, and tough decisions need to be made.  You simply can’t afford to keep everyone, and are reviewing where you can make efficiencies in order to keep the business going.

As Mabel is approaching 65 you hope she will soon be considering retirement, although you haven’t heard her mention this.  You know that people no longer automatically retire at 65, but hope you can have a chat with Mabel and ask her to consider retiring sooner rather than later, as given the financial situation, you can’t afford to keep everyone.   You think this will be the fairest solution, as other employees are more financially dependent on keeping their job, to pay mortgages for example, and you know Mabel is not in this position.

However, even a conversation such as this, for reasons you consider valid for the future of the business, are no longer reasonable since the abolition of the default retirement age.  This could still constitute an act of direct age discrimination, and thus should be avoided.

The way to tackle the problem the organisation finds itself in, is to consider any efficiencies that can be achieved whilst maintaining everyone in employment, and then to consider redundancies if you are unable to achieve the required cost savings otherwise.  Selection for redundancy should always be on objective grounds, and should never take into account “protected characteristics” such as age.  While we’re on the subject, “last in, first out” should never be used as a grounds for selection for redundancy either, as it is likely to unduly impact on younger employees, who haven’t had the opportunity to build up as much service as their older colleagues.