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Employers need to prioritise flexibility

By Alice Jaffe

21 September 2018
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We have produced a diverse range of toolkits for employers recently, on behalf of Public Health England and Business in the Community, the most recent being one on domestic abuse which launched this summer. The issues we’ve covered are very different, but there is a common thread that runs through them all – the importance of employers to be empathetic.

It seems obvious that people experiencing domestic abuse should be treated with empathy but progressive employers benefit from doing the same for people dealing with lots of different types of personal life changes including new parents, women returning the workplace, those dealing with mental health issues and people with long term health conditions.

Prospective or existing employees dealing with any one of the above need an understanding, flexible and supportive environment, where their skills and contributions can flourish. This is a professional environment where they are treated as an asset rather than a problem to be solved or a nuisance. It’s a cliché, but people are more productive when they are happy, so trying to accommodate the reasonable needs of employees should be a no-brainer, particularly in workplaces that are often highly regimented or driven by time targets, such as call centres or factory floors.

If you have a bowel condition, for example, then scheduled loo breaks are not possible and the employers who stick rigidly to such stipulations will lose workers, which in a time of near full employment creates an unnecessary challenge.

To make the most of the workforce and best skills available, employers need to adapt and open their doors to all potential workers, communicating this in their recruitment and practices what they preach through inclusive policies. These policies should also be reiterated and practiced frequently, without visible discrimination in the workplace.

That’s easy when someone has an obvious issue, such as a visible disability, but the real challenge comes from those with invisible issues such as anxiety. That’s where communications should play a role in creating a positive, inclusive working culture and line managers are key to achieving that.

This doesn’t only benefit the employees themselves. Employers who adapt to this, open themselves up to the possibilities of a wider, more highly skilled workforce. In so doing they offer incentives for others in similar positions to join, providing an overall better rounded offering to their clients or consumers.

Flexibility doesn’t mean you’re letting your employees get away with things. An employee coming into work an hour late because they have been to their dentist appointment, saves you losing them for a week of sick leave when cumulative dental decay requires teeth being removed. Time investment in their teeth is therefore a direct financial saving for you. At the moment, much of the legislation covering diversity and inclusion at work compels employers to make “reasonable adjustments”. A good employer will be working to the standard of proactive adjustments, treating all staff on the basis of their strengths and adapting the workplace to make the most of those.

It is time that flexibility comes to the forefront of working policies. Whatever the problem is, it’s the employer’s job to help employees find the time and space to help themselves, and could be their loss, if they don’t.

We spoke at the CIPD conference about how you can assess both your organisational and people needs to find the right approach for your business and create the right culture to make flexible working a success. If you’re interested in finding out more or getting some support on this issue, then please get in touch. Here are the slides from the event: