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Could Flexible Working Hours and a New Team Spirit be One of Our Olympic Legacies?

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We've less than a week to go before the 2012 London Olympic Games begin. By now, employers should be prepared for the influx of disruption sprinting towards their businesses faster than Usain Bolt.

Putting in place methods for working around such disruption is a must for short-term damage limitation, but it also may serve as a blueprint for a more flexible workforce going forward. If rolled out effectively, this blueprint for flexible working could genuinely improve performance, productivity and morale in the future.

In February, mobile service provider, O2, had a massively successful trial of a flexible working initiative which saw a quarter of its UK workforce operating remotely for the day. That day underpinned O2's plans to manage expected travel disruption during the Olympic Games. The success of O2's trial showed that having staff working remotely from home can, for many businesses, be equally if not more effective than having the whole workforce in the office at the one time.

Last month, Whitehall also announced plans to introduce flexible working schemes for civil servants during the Olympics and Paralympics.

However, employers should also be thinking about whether flexible working options should be in place for their employees all year round and not just as a way to cope until a regular schedule returns after the Olympics.

If flexible working is managed effectively, it can be a huge morale boost to staff that in turn feel listened to and in control of their working life. HR managers are faced with ever tightening budgets, meaning traditional motivation schemes, such as bonuses, pay rises and promotions, may be out of question. HR managers should certainly consider flexible working as a possible substitute for these costly motivators, as research has shown that employees value flexible working and money-based incentives equally.

Plus, isn't this the direction that many businesses are taking anyway? Flexible working can be cheaper, can make employees happier and constant telecommunication improvements make it easier than ever to implement.

With all this said, there are some bumps in the road on our journey to a flexible workforce. Most workers don't realise that they may have a statutory right to ask their employer for a new flexible working pattern if they should want to. The changes they can request can include things like flexi-time, part-time working and working from home or even working their contracted number of hours over fewer days of the week.

Also, flexible working is not something that will suit every business. For some employers, the need for staff to be in the office and for them to be there during traditional working hours is still a necessity because of the way their particular business works.

What is key as an employer is that you shouldn't have a knee-jerk reaction and reject an employee's flexible working request simply out of fear or inexperience of flexible or remote working. Employers should take time to weigh up the benefits and the risks and should try to explore if there are reasonable ways to accept the employee's request. If an employee feels that their request was refused for no good reason, this could then lead to the employee becoming upset enough to resign and claim constructive dismissal and for most employers, that will not be something which they want to have to deal with.

With less than a week to go, it may be too late to implement a full flexible working plan for the Olympics, but there are still things employers can do to limit possible Olympic disruption.

For example, during the Olympics consider allowing employees to watch some TV coverage of the Games whilst at work or during breaks. Allowing employees to come in early and then leave early to watch a particular event or giving some flexibility on when lunch breaks are taken may pay dividends by keeping employees happy and thereby maintaining productivity. Things like this will go a long way towards reducing unauthorized absences and preventing employees watching coverage at their desks rather than working.

Also, using flexible working to cope with the disruption of the Olympics will help British businesses evolve the way in which they operate. If employers can embrace a new level of flexibility and team spirit, then the Olympics will have left us with a lasting business legacy. Flexible working is never going to be something that works for every business, but it's certainly something that employers should think about running with in future.

(The information and opinions contained in this article are not intended to be comprehensive, nor to provide legal advice. No responsibility for its accuracy or correctness is assumed by Berg or any of its partners or employees. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking, or refraining from taking, any action as a result of this article.)

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