Business sector: Transport
Number of employees: 28,000

 

Key themes from the case study

  • It is imperative that any flexible working requests that are agreed balance both the employee’s needs and the needs of the business.
  • There needs to be an element of trust between a manager and their employee for flexible working to be successful. Once in place, flexible working may also strengthen the line manager and employee relationship as they already have a level of trust and understanding.
  • It is possible to implement flexible working across a variety of roles, even in areas of the business that require shift work, such as in the train and operational side of the business.
  • Although it might not seem possible to agree flexible working arrangements initially, managers often go above and beyond to try and accommodate flexible working as much as possible. They do this by: using business networks throughout the organisation (for example roster support network); collaborating with HR for additional support and guidance; and gathering details about other areas of the business that may be able to accommodate the employee’s request. 

Overall lessons learned

Updating the flexible working policies (following the change in legislation in 2014, then updated in April 2015 and May 2018 for GDPR) has led to a good level of uptake of flexible working throughout TfL, which they hope will continue to rise. Some of the key learnings include:

  • Flexible working can support employees’ mental health and wellbeing, and enables mothers to continue working after having children. 
  • Flexible working encourages employees to work in a more efficient way, as timekeeping is an imperative skill for a flexible worker.
  • Flexible working can be helpful for team dynamics and allows employees to balance their working life and home life better: ‘you end up with a better team, who trust their manager better, have a better relationship with their manager generally and whose workload and work output is better managed and increased because they are doing what they need to do’ (line manager).

Learning about the challenges of flexible working includes:

  • For some, flexible working can increase the pressure on the individual, but it is down to the employee to manage their workload and time effectively.
  • Traditional thinking around the importance of ‘office-based visibility’ does not impact on an employee’s ability to be productive, but this type of out-dated thinking can impede career progression unnecessarily for those who are seen to be less visible.
  • Where flexible working has been particularly difficult to implement, for example, in operational roles, the employee can sometimes become more demanding after a flexible working arrangement has been agreed. Therefore, it is the manager’s responsibility to manage employees’ expectations around future and additional flexible working arrangements.

Organisational context

TfL’s Smart Working Policy encourages employees across the entire organisation to consider working flexibly (particularly working from home) where appropriate. This is a general policy and is embedded in TfL’s culture around flexible working. One interviewee explained the rationale behind the Smart Working Policy: ‘you don’t have to be working in the office … and sit at the desk every day, so people can move around and work from home if there are no meetings. I think managers understand this more now.’ 

The types of flexible working commonly adopted at TfL include: part-time working, condensed hours, working from home, job-shares, and reduced hours. One interviewee also highlighted that there are possibilities for other temporary flexibility within roles, such as career breaks. The interviews explored specific examples of formal and informal flexible working arrangements, including: part-time working, reduced hours, working from home, condensed hours (in one case working outside of the traditional 9am–5pm working hours). 

The rationale behind flexible working at TfL is to create a workplace with a flexible and inclusive culture, to foster employees’ wellbeing and work–life balance. By promoting an inclusive culture through flexible working, the organisation: 

  • enables mothers to return to work after having children
  • allows employees with caring duties the flexibility they need to balance work and home life
  • includes those without caring responsibilities who are interested in working flexibly.

In cases of internal change and transformation, there have been occasions where a directorate has committed to honouring all flexible working arrangements (for permanent employees) so that flexible working has remained in place following the restructure.

Given that flexible working is embedded in the organisational culture at TfL (and has  been for a number of years) and ‘smart working’ is part of the TfL ethos, there tends not to be any specific promotion around flexible working. Although, where there are job vacancies, flexible working is routinely advertised as a possibility (though subject to agreement of the line manager). Employees at TfL can submit one flexible working application every 12 months.

In terms of implementing flexible working, HR provides support if the line manager needs guidance or the application is rejected, but ultimately it is the line manager’s decision to accept or reject the flexible working arrangement. Interviewees reported that having support from HR is helpful for guidance around agreeing flexible working. For line managers this is particularly necessary when dealing with complex cases or areas of the business where it is more difficult to implement flexible working arrangements (for example in the operational/customer facing side of the business). 

As part of TfL’s flexible working policy, once a flexible working arrangement has been agreed, the decision is binding on a long-term basis and cannot be retracted unless a review period is agreed up front (with the exception of the employee moving positions or gaining a promotion). Once the flexible working arrangement is formally agreed, HR steps back from dealing directly with the employee and arrangements are mostly made between the line manager and employee. 

Flexible working in non-traditional and/or senior roles

Non-traditional roles

  • Fathers who work from home.
  • Flexible working arrangements agreed with those who do not have caring responsibilities.
  • Employees with medical issues supported to work flexibly.
  • Flexibility amongst operational roles (both station- and train-based roles).
  • Flexibility amongst call centre shift workers. 

Senior roles

  • Senior employees and directors of TfL who work flexibly.

Although there are areas of the organisation where it can be more difficult to implement flexible working, there have been examples from areas such as train operators and customer-facing shift workers where flexible working arrangements have been agreed and work successfully. Because this type of role is typically shift work and rostered, it can be more difficult to formalise and agree flexible working, because of the impact on the rest of the team and operations, but it is possible. 

Flexible working requests are always considered on a case-by-case basis and are dependent on the type of request and whether it can be accommodated within the team. Team size is a key factor, as a team of 250 operators can accommodate more flexible working requests than a depot of only 60. As a line manager pointed out: ‘You would look at the number of flexible working arrangements that you already have in place… in regard to the new flexible working request that you have received, and whether that can be accommodated in addition to the existing flexible working arrangements. …Because you would get to a saturation point. You might be able to agree the same hours for two people, but you won’t be able to agree it for more than that.’ 

Gaining senior and line manager buy-in

  • Highlight positive outcomes and benefits of flexible working: While there seems to be support for flexible working from senior leaders (that is, directors), middle management tend to need more convincing to understand the benefits of flexible working. It was suggested that highlighting the benefits and positive outcomes of flexible working (for example higher productivity and more knowledge across the team) would be a good way of beginning to gain buy-in from middle managers. In addition to this, showing clear examples of cases where flexible working is working well within the organisation would be helpful to gain buy in. 
  • Improve knowledge around flexible working: Provide more guidance to improve knowledge around flexible working and begin changing and challenging individual team cultures that are not supportive of flexible working or view it to be detrimental to the business needs when this is not the case. 
  • Financial benefit – more talent for the same pay: One way of gaining buy-in is to recognise that more part-time/job-sharing contracts (that is, where there are two employees per role) can provide instances where there is more talent, and a wider breadth of skills and knowledge for the same amount of money that an organisation would be paying one full-time individual. 
  • Support with roles which are trickier to adapt to flexible working: There appears to be less support and buy-in on the operational side of the business; in particular, senior management within this business area can sometimes see flexible working as an obstacle to delivering customer service. Managers within the operational side of TfL feel that they are less supported by colleagues when agreeing flexible working arrangements. In addition, it is generally more difficult to accommodate flexible working in this area of the business than it is in office-based roles (given the shift work nature and the 24-hour operations required). Therefore, managers within this part of the business may need to seek further guidance and support from colleagues and HR to make flexible working possible and easier to implement. 
  • Culture around flexible working: The culture around flexible working at TfL is such that flexible working has been embedded within the organisation for a number of years. This is perhaps why so many of the senior managers and leaders really champion flexible working, with clear examples of senior management actively encouraging flexible working and being as accommodating as possible of flexible working arrangements. In addition, the Smart Working Policy also supports the organisation’s commitment to flexible working at an organisational level.

Facilitators to implementing flexible working 

  • Collaboration and networks: The implementation of flexible working is supported by collaboration and utilising networks within the business. Specifically, a line manager mentioned opportunities to work alongside HR and the ‘roster support network’ to gain access to other locations/areas of the business, which might be able to accommodate flexible working requests that might not be possible within the employee’s current team. 
  • Employee–line manager relationship: The employee–line manager relationship was highlighted as an important factor for flexible working to be successful. When taking working from home as an example, one interviewee suggested that there has to be a level of maturity, understanding and trust between a manager and employee: ‘it’s not a case of monitoring when you can physically see someone is logged on but instead more focus on what is being delivered in terms of results and targets.’

    The focus on the outputs and delivery of a flexible worker challenges the traditional thinking about physical presence being important and shifts the emphasis to actual productivity. Additionally, a manager suggested that flexible working can actually strengthen the relationship between manager and employee as there is an acknowledgment of trust between them: ‘there is trust there if they need to confide in their manager further because they know they are flexible.’
  • Technology: Another important factor in implementing flexible working is the technology available to support flexible and agile working. For example, the technology in place at TfL allows flexible workers to join meetings using conference calling, instead of the traditional face-to-face set-up, which promotes inclusivity across the team: ‘Everyone has an opportunity to attend those meetings and those who can’t attend can be updated later.’

Benefits of implementing flexible working (including any data/evidence collected)

Flexible worker perspective

  • Benefits to the individual: Benefits of flexible working include being able to go back to work after having children and being able to work around childcare arrangements and caring responsibilities. Specifically, flexible working enabled them to be more than a caregiver: ‘I can have my work life as opposed to being restricted to being a mother at home.’
  • Benefits to the organisation: Flexible workers often go beyond the call of duty; for example, where workers are employed on a part-time basis with similar objectives to those who work full-time, they have to work more efficiently. It could be said that the organisation is getting more for less: ‘we all end up doing more than our part-time hours.’ On the other hand, the challenge with this is for flexible workers to still spend time building relationships and networking with colleagues.

Line manager perspective

  • Positive impact on work, attitudes and relationships: There are specific case examples where flexible working has increased productivity and quality of work. Additionally, flexible working has a positive impact on employees’ outlook towards life and the relationship between manager and employee, fostering trust, and meaning employees feel able to confide in their manager further (if necessary) because they have been flexible in the past.
  • Retention and longer working lives: When thinking about retention and longevity of an employee’s working life, a line manager said: ‘It enables people to work better over the time of their career.’ This staff retention offers both a financial gain for the organisation, and a potential competitive advantage. 

HR perspective

  • Engagement, work–life balance and retention: Employees seem more engaged when given the opportunity to work flexibly. Flexible working enables employees to have an improved work–life balance and can empower returning mothers to remain in the workplace. 

Challenges/barriers to implementing flexible working

Flexible worker perspective

  • Scheduling, keeping in touch and managing workloads: A personal challenge was fitting team meetings into their working schedule. 
    Although the team (around 40 employees) is accommodating, working around their schedule is not always possible and in these cases it is the individual’s responsibility  to make sure they are kept up to date. Initially, they had to speak with the wider team on an individual basis to explain their hours and flexible working arrangement.

    The flexible worker mentioned that transitioning from full-time to part-time was also an interesting change. Switching to a part-time schedule meant that the working week tended to go much quicker because they were only in the office three days a week. As a result, managing their workload and knowing when to say ‘no’ to additional work became particularly important: ‘You have to be prepared to say no because you can end up taking on too much.’
  • Career progression: The flexible worker also said that it can sometimes feel like there is a barrier for flexible workers when applying for more senior roles. They found that many roles are not advertised with the option of flexible working and there appears to be a perception across the organisation that more senior roles require more visibility in the office, which may be difficult for some flexible workers, depending on their flexible working arrangement. They felt that this perception might influence their ability to be promoted into a more senior role and that perhaps a certain stigma still exists towards part-time workers being promoted.

Line manager perspective

  • Policies not allowing travel time as work time: One barrier to remote working is that the current flexible working policy does not incorporate travel time as part of working hours (if appropriate). In one specific case, an employee had requested a flexible working arrangement of compressed hours incorporating some travel time, because of their ability to work on the train during their commute. Under the current policy, commuting time is not included as part of working hours, despite some employees working remotely during their commute.

    The line manager suggested that the policy be adapted/updated to explicitly consider whether remote working (that is, where employees are working from locations other than at work or at home) could be included in flexible working arrangements and under what circumstances. Without this, the policy around remote working is rather inflexible in terms of supporting the breadth of flexible working arrangements.
  • Technology: In addition, technology can be a barrier to flexible working: in cases where employees are encouraged to work from home under the Smart Working Policy, it is assumed that employees supply their own technology to support this. The formal flexible working policy clearly states that TfL will not purchase extra equipment to assist an employee working from home, even though employees are encouraged to work from home in line with the Smart Working Policy.

HR perspective

  • Number and volume of flexible working applications and job roles: A challenge to implementing flexible working arrangements can also be the sheer number and volume of flexible working applications per business area. While it is positive that the uptake of flexible working arrangements is increasing across the organisation, it can also mean that not all applications can be accepted within a particular business area.

    Managers may be unable to agree certain flexible working arrangements because of impracticality or because they may be potentially detrimental to the business or wider team – for example, where there is already a high number of flexible workers in one area of the business, or where the nature of the job role does not allow flexible working (for example where an employee works shifts including weekends and requests Monday–Friday, 9am–5pm hours).

Overcoming the barriers and challenges

Flexible worker perspective

  • Flexibility of flexible working: It may be necessary to be informally flexible to work around communications/meetings and the schedules of the wider team, and not miss out on important communications or meetings, which sometimes cannot be rescheduled. In terms of workload, when a piece of work requires a quick turnaround, they will work alongside their manager to engage other colleagues who may be able to provide support.

Line manager perspective

  • Openness and honesty: When agreeing flexible working arrangements, it is vital to be open and honest with the employee from the start. Managers can provide support by giving employees guidance around their flexible working requests and whether they can be accommodated or not. It is also best practice to send them the flexible working policy, application form and company guidance, and to make them aware of any impact flexible working may have on them financially (for example, salary changes) or in terms of work–life balance (for example, holiday entitlement), so that they are in the best position to apply through the formal channels.

    Being open and honest can reduce any hostility from the start, for example being up front about problems: ‘Sometimes I need to say, “I don’t think that would be acceptable in the job that you do” or “that might have too much of a negative impact on the team.” If you are open and honest with people, I think they are generally appreciative of it.’

    Importantly, having a conversation early on means a line manager understands what the employee wants, so that they can manage their expectations and assess whether the flexible working arrangement is suitable in relation to the rest of the team, before they formally apply. 

  • Holding to own views: In cases where the line manager has experienced hostility from other managers who don’t agree with their decision, they take the view that ‘it’s not their call’. ‘My advice would be that you do what is right for you, your group, the individual and the team in general.’

HR perspective

  • Accommodating line managers: Generally, line managers try to accommodate flexible working arrangements as best they can. There have been instances where flexible working could not be accommodated in the employee’s current role, but managers have gone above and beyond to try and accommodate the request in another capacity. For example, an employee requested to work three days per week instead of four, but their current role could not accommodate this; so the manager agreed to create a job-share for the role so that another employee covered the work. This was a particularly complex arrangement due to complications with different pay bands, contract, salaries and tax implications, but with the support of HR these were overcome.

How to measure and evaluate the impact of flexible working

Currently, the potential impact of flexible working is considered prior to agreement of the flexible working arrangements in the following ways: 

  • Objectives and work output are agreed and reviewed at performance reviews 
    every six months, including discussing any performance-related issues.
  • An initial discussion meeting can be useful to gain an understanding of what flexible working the employee is asking for and what the impact on them is likely to be. In some cases, the requested flexible working arrangement might not have the benefits that the employee is hoping for and in these instances the line manager may need to challenge the employee to rethink their request or conduct a formal review.
  • If there are concerns about physical impact, for example when an employee is working from home, the manager can request a visit to the employee’s home to assess if they think their working environment is suitable for working from home.
  • If there are concerns about performance and flexible working arrangements, they can seek formal feedback from the team (anonymously) prior to accepting any flexible working requests.
  • A trial period may be appropriate if there are any concerns that flexible working arrangements may negatively impact on the team. This allows managers to gain feedback from their team and peer group to understand whether the flexible working arrangement is impacting on their individual output or their team.

In terms of the impact of flexible working once the arrangement is in place, the 
following impacts were noted: 

  • One flexible worker felt that they had positively impacted on the team in terms of reducing stigma around requesting flexible working arrangements: ‘people feel like they can ask for it.’
  • The Equality & Inclusion (E&I) Team is currently working through the metrics around engagement and flexible working. The data is collected via the annual survey, which includes an equality and inclusion index and wellbeing index (which relate to flexible working arrangements). The survey is a new initiative since last year and results will be fed back by the E&I Team.

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