Despite regular reports that flexible workers are more productive and committed, the practice is still regularly presented as one of the biggest issues in the workplace, with managers too often looking at it as a problem to be solved rather than as a problem solving tool.
In order to be taken seriously, flexible working needs to shake its reputation as an accommodation made for women with children. This idea only serves to marginalise those working around their child care arrangements and diminishes what is a useful working practice. In fact, it can be a great tool for anyone and doesn't need to be confined to this group. By adopting a more inclusive approach managers can make the most of a useful instrument for management and make sure that working mothers aren't side-lined for choosing to work flexibly.
Many managers get nervous about employees asking for different hours or home working because they don't know what criteria to use to make the decision. Too often it comes down to whether they think the person is 'deserving' or not. This is, of course, an impossible situation where the manager feels they must evaluate their employees' personal circumstances and judge whether or not they deserve flexible working privileges.
However, deciding who is eligible for flexible working should not be about deciding between Jill's three year old and Jack's elderly mother, but about who has a solid business case for why flexible working will work for them. That is to say, managers must make a business decision rather than a personal one. The way to do this is by making sure everyone can apply, regardless of personal circumstance. This doesn't mean that flexible working is an entitlement, but it does mean that everyone who can put forward a business case is entitled to a fair and thorough hearing.
Businesses need to train managers to make business decisions based on each individual case, looking at the decision in terms of what it will give or take from the employee's performance. Managers in turn should expect people applying to make a compelling business case; for example, why work will continue as usual, why their relationships with clients and colleagues won't be impacted on, and why the business as a whole will not be affected. They should be offering solutions to potential problems that might arise and making the most of technology to show how they will be able to manage working flexibly.
An employee working flexibly should have a neutral impact on business, as well as enabling them to think creatively about how they work and acting as a catalyst for innovative working practices. If they can demonstrate this effect then there is no reason why a manager shouldn't be able to consider their request. The employer will see, in return, greater commitment and engagement that flexible working delivers. There are many ways to work flexibly - from working from home to staggered hours, where an employee agrees a time to start and end the working day. When an employee puts their case to their manager they should think resourcefully and present different options. Starting earlier and finishing earlier, for example, can really help with childcare commitments and still allows the employee to work a full day.
Half of the battle will be getting employers over the fear that allowing one request will cause the flood gates to open; and convincing them that it is possible to consider flexible work applications on a case-by-case basis, with their business priorities in mind.