Business sector: Energy management, automation and manufacturing 
Number of employees: Roughly 4,500 in the UK 

 

Key themes from the case study

  • Communication and trust is a key theme for achieving successful flexible working.
  • The relationship and openness between line manager and flexible worker can impact on how flexible working is implemented.
  • There is an emphasis on a ‘give and take’ perspective towards flexible working and how it has benefits to both the individual and organisation when implemented successfully.
  • Successful implementation of flexible working will look different across different areas of the business, and that’s okay; in fact, it is beneficial to think through the specific business area’s needs in relation to flexible working for the best outcomes. 

Overall lessons learned

  • Try not to focus on the negative examples of flexible working; show positive examples where flexible working worked well and is a success.
  • Focus on the individual, their performance and the specific flexible working arrangement on a case-by-case basis; don’t let previous negative experiences decide future flexible working outcomes.
  • Listen to people: ‘If they are coming to you to discuss flexible working, they are coming to you for a reason or maybe they are struggling. If you can work with them, they will give you something back. We want to retain people and their skills, we don’t want them to leave.’ 

Next steps 

  • Schneider Electric (SE) wants to increase diversity throughout the organisation. There may be links to flexible working and perhaps more uptake through this focus.
  • SE has a ‘Global Family Leave Policy’, which sets minimum global standards in place for family leave and pay. It covers 12 weeks’ Primary Parental Leave (pre-/post-birth or adoption); 2 weeks’ Secondary Parental Leave (within 12 months of birth or adoption); 1 week’s Care Leave for immediate family or elder care; and 1 week’s Bereavement Leave.
  • In the UK, SE already had a lot of the elements in place but have implemented Care Leave, extended their Secondary Parental Leave period to two weeks and have an enhanced Primary Parental Leave Pay Policy whereby employees receive the first 13 weeks at full pay, the second 13 weeks at half pay and the final 13 weeks at Statutory Maternity Pay.
  • SE UK have also engaged My Family Care, who can provide support to working parents or carers and offer an employee assistance programme.
  • Focus on uptake for those less likely to request flexible working, that is, not just for mothers/female workers.
  • SE would like to increase flexible working uptake in senior employees to role-model for the rest of the organisation. 

Organisational context

Flexible working at (SE) is available universally across the organisation; employees can request any type of flexibility that they might need. However, given the vast range of job roles within the organisation, some types of flexible working are better suited and more appropriate to some business areas than others. For example: ‘We have a call centre environment where we have people job-sharing, which wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate in other areas.’ 

Currently there are examples of a range of types of flexible working at Schneider Electric: 

  • part-time hours
  • compressed hours
  • home/remote working
  • flexitime (varied start and finish times)
  • care leave (where employees can take up to five days’ paid leave in a rolling 12-month period in the event of a dependant emergency). 

There have been examples of both formal and informal flexible working arrangements, and the most common forms of flexible working at SE tend to be part-time hours. There is also an ‘inherent flexibility’ so that people can work from home or work remotely, as and when they need, depending on the requirements of their role. ‘We are quite flexible generally about people’s places of work, according to their job role. They don’t necessarily need to be on a particular site on a particular day.’ For example, members of the HR team, who travel to different sites regularly, can have a day at home to balance out the travel and catch up on other work. There are also formal flexible working arrangements in place for those who want regular working from home days each week. 

In some areas of the business flexible working arrangements are available that are quite unique to the business area. For example, in the manufacturing side of the business, employees are able to:

  • work overtime that can later be taken off in lieu 
  • work at weekends to fulfil their weekly hours if needed 
  • request night shift work (particularly requested when partners work within the same department to enable sharing of caring responsibilities). 

To accommodate flexible working, managers at SE work with the employees to agree a suitable compromise for both parties in order for the flexible working to work. ‘We’re working with the employees to make sure flexible working still benefits us as well as them.’ 

An HR professional stated that a key achievement of flexible working was being able to support employees through various life stages that may require an adjustment to their work schedule. For example, balancing caring responsibilities, and helping employees wind down to retirement (through lessening their weekly hours). ‘You often associate flexible working with working parents, but I know of a few examples where we have supported employees to wind down to retirement or with other caring responsibilities, perhaps looking after elderly parents. We are working hard to change the perception of flexible working being a female, parental request and ensuring all employees are aware of their right to request flexible working.’ 

SE has had a flexible working policy in place for at least ten years and emphasised that it is open to all across the organisation. One manager reflected on the journey and how the culture around flexible working opportunities had changed over the last ten years: ‘Even taking time off for the dentist was frowned upon then, but you don’t fear going up to your manager now and saying, “I need time off for a doctor's appointment.”’ 

SE’s rationale for supporting informal and formal flexible working opportunities came from its ‘give and take’ initiative a few years ago. This initiative encouraged informal flexible working and highlighted that managers were empowered to help employees achieve flexible working: ‘It’s about give and take and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a formal request. People give a lot to the organisation and if they need an hour off to go to their son’s sports day, then give them that flexibility back. We try to encourage that and empower managers to have that conversation with their team and encourage their staff to take a bit of time back where they need to.’

The idea behind ‘give and take’ is to also avoid requests having to be formalised when they could be discussed and agreed at a local level: ‘Occasionally we have received flexible working requests for small, short-term changes which could have been agreed at a local level and didn’t need a formal change to their contract.’ 

Flexible working in non-traditional and/or senior roles

Non-traditional roles

  • Call centre roles, where job-sharing works well.
  • Manufacturing (which has a workforce made up largely of males with long service) – generally flexible working includes working part-time or working a requested shift to accommodate home life (for example partners working opposite shifts to help with caring duties). Although this is a traditional area where flexible working can be difficult to implement, there is a fair amount of uptake of flexible working (both informal and formal) so they are familiar with receiving flexible working requests.
  • Customer-facing – for example project managers working part-time.
  • Sales/field services – when nearing retirement age, they tend to request office-based roles to reduce travel; however, there are some examples of working from home (on an informal basis). 

Senior roles

  • A director works part-time (three days a week, winding down to retirement). 
  • The senior HR team includes three employees who work flexibly, part-time and compressed hours.
  • Senior-level employees work flexibly in other areas of the business (reporting to the vice president).
  • At senior levels, roles can generally be more flexible on an informal basis, but it is important to be aware that this difference in ability to be informally flexible could lead to an ‘us’ and ‘them’ culture across the organisation. 

Gaining senior and line manager buy-in 

Although buy-in varies from team to team, there is generally a willingness from senior managers to support flexible working across the organisation. ‘There’s quite a willingness from senior leadership as well. Where we can, we accommodate people. If we agree to put someone on a formal arrangement, then senior management empower us; they leave it to us.’ However, previous experience of flexible working can influence senior managers’ opinions and whether they actively encourage the uptake of flexible working. 

A line manager also noted that senior management are conscious about the importance of the workforce not being overworked: ‘There is encouragement from senior managers to not work too much as there is a consciousness that sometimes people may be overworking.’ 

Facilitators to implementing flexible working 

  • Considering the business area/needs: ‘We are a large organisation with very varied roles, so what works for one area wouldn’t necessarily work for another area.’ For example, in customer-facing roles, it might work well to have someone in every day but working shorter hours; whereas in manufacturing, they would rather have someone working fewer days a week than fewer hours per day, so that they can manage the workflow through the assembly line: ‘If it was five hours a day rather than seven hours a day, that might cause issues because they’re planning an assembly line with a certain amount of people, for a certain amount of hours. It really depends on the area you work in and the type of work you are doing, and how it would work best.’

    Flexible working will be different across different teams. For example, within the assembly team, there are rosters to plan the working schedule. Any flexible working arrangements need to be agreed with managers to make sure the business has enough people working and can still run and be fully functional. Flexible working in these settings does not mean that staff can just come and go on their own individual schedule (unlike some office roles).

    Linked to this, a line manager within the manufacturing side of the business noted the importance of minimising the impact of flexible working on the business, by considering the number of flexible working arrangements per team and spreading flexible working arrangements across teams. ‘What we don’t want is everyone on a flexible working arrangement working in the same area, because then we will have gaps in the skills that we need at certain times of the shift. So what we’ve looked at is moving people around from one cell to another, learning different products. So it’s just one person in that cell rather than two or three people on the formal flexible working arrangement.’
  • Having a multi-skilled team of workers enables more flexibility: Having a team of multi-skilled workers within the department means flexible working can be accommodated more easily, because employees can be flexible according to the business needs and skills required for the job. SE aims to develop skills in employees who are on formal flexible working arrangements, so that they are able to work in a range of roles, making it easier to be flexible. ‘People who have had to request formal flexible working arrangements, we work with them to develop their skills when they are coming back into the workplace, so they can fill various roles, not just a single role.’ 
  • Having an open dialogue and trust between line manager and employee: A flexible worker commented on the importance of having a good relationship with their line manager in order to be able to have an open conversation about flexible working: ‘I know them as friends as well as colleagues and I can speak to them as an equal.’ They also said that it is important that both parties feel able to talk when things are not going so well; for example, having an open discussion when productivity may be affected by age/physical ability to do the job. If and when this may arise, there is an understanding that they will have a discussion, rather than the individual just being asked to leave: ‘If I start to struggle age-wise, then they would have the discussion, “do you think you should still do this?” and that’s what I have always suggested to them that I would want them to do.’

    Building trust between line managers and flexible workers is also vital. ‘Sometimes there is that resistance from a manager’s perspective, the trust that is required with a flexible working relationship. They might not see the individual, so how do they know that they are doing what they are required to? So it’s about thinking differently about output rather than attendance.’ 
  • Support from HR to calm fears and combat resistance from managers:  ‘Sometimes managers have a fear that they need to confirm the flexible working arrangement as is. Rather than having a conversation around, “Well this doesn’t work quite so well, but what about this, have you considered this? Would this work for you?”’ HR can help to reduce these fears and talk through how to think about balancing both the business and individuals’ needs.

    HR also have the ability to provide additional support and sometimes can encourage a line manager to think differently about flexible working. 
  • Awareness of the right to request flexible working: Employees know they can request flexible working and this helps with uptake of flexible working arrangements. 

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

Flexible worker perspective

  • More out-of-work time: A flexible worker talked about flexible working allowing them to have more time to socialise and become accustomed to life as a (semi-)retired person, without feeling overwhelmed by having too much time away from colleagues and work, thereby achieving a balance. They also felt that they were able to give back and help to train other staff.
  • Maintains social relationships with colleagues: The flexible worker also highlighted the importance of maintaining their network amongst colleagues, particularly as they begin the journey into retirement; they talked about the positives that remaining in work can offer on their health and wellbeing, for example keeping active and doing a role that they enjoy. 

Line manager perspective

  • Retaining skills and talent: There were examples given where some employees would not have been able to remain at SE if they were not able to work flexibly. One of those examples included a worker who was planning for retirement but wanted to remain in work part time. SE were able to agree the change in hours and have managed to retain an employee with over 40 years of experience at SE. ‘If you can work around them, then you can retain those skills and those people; then you end up with a better workforce.’
  • Give and take: Flexible working can offer benefit to both the organisation and the employee. ‘If we can be flexible with people, then people will be flexible with us and they will probably work harder for us. If we put barriers up and say “we’re not working with you,” we wouldn’t get the same response from staff.’ A flexible worker also commented on the idea of give and take between organisation and employee: ‘It’s just give and take, we are both getting the flexibility. I wouldn’t take the mickey and get all the flexibility I can and just be rigid towards the organisation.’ 

HR perspective

  • More time for home life: Flexible working allows employees to spend more time doing the things that are important to them in their home life. This might be spending more time with their children, spending less time commuting to and from work, and help with any caring responsibility (for example nursery pick-up, caring for elderly parents).
  • Employees value flexible working and are more loyal as a result: When flexible working works well within an organisation, employees feel more loyal to the organisation: ‘It ties someone into an organisation where it works well and they have been given the flexibility they need.’ 
  • More productive and efficient workforce: It was suggested that flexible workers are often more productive and efficient at managing their workload: ‘You can find that people who work part-time are very focused and productive in work so they can achieve what they need to within their working hours.’ 

Challenges/barriers to implementing flexible working 

Flexible worker perspective

  • Being flexible for the company while also sticking to the flexible working arrangement: It can be challenging to strike the balance between being flexible for the business, and also sticking to the flexible working agreement. One flexible worker explained that they are happy to be flexible, but also require consistency with their flexible working. ‘I am quite happy to be there when we have a panic on, but I will be taking the hours back again when the panic stops. When I started this [flexible working], I knew I could start on three days and end up doing the best part of a week, so I said to my assembly manager that I would be flexible and do more days when the company needs it, but I will always take the days off in lieu rather than working an extra day. And that way I can make sure the hours don’t start accumulating more and more.’ 

Line manager perspective

  • Resentment from those who are not working flexibly: There were a small number of examples where there had been some resentment from those who aren’t on flexible working arrangements: ‘Why does he get to work x y z hours, why can’t we all work his hours?’
  • Changing business needs affecting the status quo: When there are changes to the business needs which affect those on flexible working arrangements, it can be challenging: ‘We’ve started to put shifts on areas we have never had shifts before – so people on flexible working agreements can’t go onto those shifts, so we have had to change some people around to accommodate this. They have been taken out of their comfort zone and possibly taken away from their friends/colleagues and their secure working environment and put somewhere else. That hasn’t always gone down well.’ 

HR perspective 

  • Lack of trust: Lack of trust between a line manager and their team can hinder the implementation of flexible working arrangements. It is vital to have a trusting relationship for flexible working to be successful. 
  • Line managers’ fears and attitudes: Some managers fear that implementing flexible working will open the flood gates for all employees to request flexible working: ‘If I approve this one I’m going to open the flood gates and set a precedent and then I will have to approve every single one I receive after this.’

    There can be a tendency for line managers to want employees to be present in the office: ‘They like to see people in the office, but it is a process of change and it requires trust and thinking about how you measure performance differently; it’s still a bit difficult for some managers to change their thinking on that. Being present isn’t necessarily a sign of performance, managers should be encouraged to look at output.’ 
  • Negative previous experience with flexible working arrangements: Where managers have experienced previous negative outcomes from flexible working, they will often believe that the same negative outcome will happen again. In such situations, HR encourages the manager to consider the individual and their flexible working request on their own merit and potentially use trial periods to test out a flexible working pattern. 
  • Type of request and business area suitability: As SE has a broad range of business areas, managers can really differ on their openness to flexible working. ‘I see it on a cultural basis, business unit by business unit. In some areas where it is a bit more traditional, you can get that push back, or maybe they don’t have much experience of flexible working because it’s very male dominated and perhaps employees haven’t made those requests.’ For example, project management is quite male dominated, with high workloads, and demanding customer-facing roles, and some managers within these areas are more nervous about flexible working. Sales is another area where line managers struggle to see how flexible working could work, because of the targets and the customer-facing nature of the role. 

Overcoming the barriers and challenges

Flexible worker perspective 

  • Having a team with different work needs allows for flexibility: Within their team they are able to shift workloads as some workers are interested in working longer hours per day (12-hour shift) and others prefer to work shorter hours (8-hour shift). This enables the manager to make sure the assembly line is covered as there is a mixture of workers wanting more and fewer hours a day. ‘There is a flexibility within the team and so my manager doesn’t find my 'lack of hours' a problem because you can make up the shortfall by other colleagues who want to do them.’ 

Line manager perspective

  • Two-way dialogue through the flexible working arrangement process: When agreeing flexible working, the first step is to talk with the team leader; this is important because it highlights whether they are able to cope with the changes to the schedule and how this might affect the workflow, skillset on site, and team management. It is also necessary to discuss any concerns the manager might have with the individual who has requested the flexible working; this gives the employee the chance to suggest how they might overcome any business concerns. It needs to be a two-way dialogue throughout. 
  • Dealing with resentment in a positive manner: Sometimes talking about positive outcomes helps to combat the negativity around flexible working. One manager talked about the fact that his team often has to work to very tight deadlines, but if there is a chance for them to leave a little earlier one day then they will try and offer that to show that there is fairness to all staff.
  • Highlight the benefits of flexible working to encourage the uptake: ‘The benefits outweigh any problems.’

HR perspective

  • Coaching conversations around implementing flexible working: From an HR business partner’s perspective, it’s about talking to managers and working with them so that there is an understanding of the business challenges that flexible working arrangements might present. HR can help managers to think through alternative options which might be better suited to the business area and the individual. 
  • Challenging the attitude of resistance to flexible working: ‘If somebody performs well and [the line manager] knows they do a good job, if they are not in the office one day a week, that’s not necessarily going to change. And if it does change, just have a conversation with them about it.’ 

How to measure and evaluate the impact of flexible working

Currently data is not collected specifically about flexible working in the organisation as a whole. The impact of flexible working is considered at a local level by having conversations with line managers and flexible workers. For example, performance reviews and one-to-ones give both parties a chance to talk about whether the flexible working is working well and whether there are any changes that need to be put in place. It also gives the line manager a chance to check with the employee whether the flexible working is working successfully for them and any alterations that might need to be made. 

A line manager commented: ‘We couldn’t alter the hours once they are in place, but depending on circumstances we could check whether they could work somewhere different or work with different people, or use a different monitoring system; for example, timesheets that they have to fill in so we know what they have done during times where they haven’t been supervised.’

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