Flexible working in practice: can it be a win–win?
Friday, July 2, 2021
Flexible working comes in many different forms, from flexible roles, responsibilities, altered hours, or adaptable working environments. Flexibility is a key contributor in building an engaged and sustainable workforce. This article poses questions to consider about how to work in a flexible and sustainable way to benefit you, your team, the patients under your care and your practice both during and in the recovery phase following the pandemic.
Flexibility is a key contributor in building an engaged and sustainable workforce who are able to deliver a quality of service in a productive, safe and agile way. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals, teams, businesses, and the profession as a whole, have adapted, changed, flexed and changed some more. We now have clinicians working from home, wider use of telemedicine, consultations in car parks, altered opening hours and changed shift patterns, to name but a few. We have demonstrated our ability to adapt to the environment and demands that have been placed on us, but at what cost? Can we continue to be as flexible once the external stimulus has long disappeared and is such flexibility truly sustainable long term?
What do we mean by flexible working?
Flexible working comes in many different forms, it is not simply working from home or working fewer hours. It could take the form of flexible roles, responsibilities, altered hours, or adaptable working environments. Understanding both your own and your team's requirements and expectations is a key starting point to discussions about potential changes. Everyone is different and their requests and desired outcomes may also differ for each individual, so how do you know what would work for your team and your business?
Ask yourself or your colleague these three questions:
- How flexible are your current working arrangements?
- What would the benefit be to you, the business, your team, patients and clients if you were able to work with greater flexibility, and what might it look like?
- What would the payoff be?
What are the benefits?
Flexible working can deliver benefits to the workforce, the business, clients and patients. Research also shows flexible workers have a higher level of job satisfaction and wellbeing (Kelliher and Anderson, 2009).
Let us take a look at some of the benefits seen as a result of more flexible working:
- Reduced commuting time
- Better work–life balance, particularly to allow for demands outside of work
- Increased wellbeing, decreased stress and burnout, potential to reduce mistakes and increase autonomy
- Greater enjoyment at work through a supportive and inclusive workplace culture
- Shifts based on working preferences which align with individual personality (e.g. later shifts for those who prefer working later in the day, earlier shifts for those who are early risers)
- Easier to effectively organise and manage workload.
For the practice
- Better supply–demand management; ability to staff the business through peak times
- Increased recruitment and retention of a broad pool of talent
- Decreased recruitment costs (as a result of low attrition)
- Retaining skills through job shares or part-time work that would otherwise be lost
- Creation of a diverse and inclusive workforce
- Attractiveness of role for potential employees
- Greater employee loyalty — team members who feel valued are more likely to go above and beyond when required
- Increased productivity, improved quality of work and more efficient ways of working
- Reduced sickness absence.
Figure 1. Flexibly working can include shift times that suit individuals — such as earlier shifts for those who prefer working early in the day.
For clients and patients
- Increased flexibility for clients — increased use of video or telephone consulting allows more flexible consultation times and reduced travel requirements or stress as a result of the need to travel
- Improved patient outcomes and client communication through a more engaged team.
When we asked veterinary professionals in practice what their biggest challenges were before COVID-19, ‘work–life balance’ often appeared top of the list. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in recent discussions, practice employees still cite work–life balance as one of the key challenges facing the profession today, with intensity of work and sustainable ways of working (such as taking regular breaks and finishing on time) all being identified as current threats to energy levels.
Pre-pandemic, it was thought that the demand for flexible working outstripped the supply of roles available. However, COVID-19 lead to a rapid adjustment and uptake in flexible working, with many businesses noting improvements in employee wellbeing, engagement and productivity, as well as increased flexibility with client interaction. Now aware of the benefits, many individuals and businesses wish to continue with some degree of home or flexible working. Moving forward, this approach may help address issues around work–life balance, allocating time to the non-clinical roles, job satisfaction, as well as attracting and retaining talent (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 2020).
Have you been working flexibly over the past year? If so, what has that flexibility looked like? What impact has it had on you, both at work and in your personal life? Is it something you want to continue doing to the same or a different amount? Have you thought about how you would approach this with your boss (or colleagues)?
Steps to get started…
Presenting a case for flexible working may take the form of a negotiation, as an ideal scenario for some may not be practical for others, i.e. the business or the team. Be clear on your desired outcome but remember to adopt a problem-solving approach, presenting the benefits to all parties, while also considering the impact to others. Demonstrate your willingness to be flexible by preparing more than one potential solution.
Setting out clear boundaries and expectations is also essential from the start. Consider how it will work, what potential barriers can be anticipated and therefore navigated ahead of time, and how will you measure ‘success’ and demonstrate it is working for all parties involved? Are you, your boss and your team clear on what is expected of you in your role? As team members may not be working in the same building, or in the same way as colleagues, maintaining performance visibility and creating an awareness of their contribution and collaboration is vital.
Implementing and reviewing
It is of little surprise that early research suggests an increased demand for more flexible working following the pandemic (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 2020). Have you reviewed its effectiveness and the impact of continuing working as you are? If not, now is the time.
Is the flexibility and ways of working you currently have fit for purpose in the long term? Do they enable a collaborative way of working? Are there any tweaks that need to be implemented to enable new ways of working to be future-proofed?
Some questions to consider:
- What benefits have there been to the current way of working?
- What are you unable to do as a result of your current working practices?
- Which flexible working practices do you want to continue post-pandemic?
- Have you reviewed its effectiveness and the impact of continuing working as you are?
- How have the changes impacted individuals, the team, the working environment, productivity, workflow, and communication across the practice?
For managers, embracing flexible working arrangements can feel like a headache, opening a can of worms, or an administrative nightmare. However, recent events have proven just how possible and effective it is to work more flexibly, and indeed, have highlighted the key benefits to encouraging flexibility within the practice structure.
Remember to involve the team, encourage them to supply ideas for formulating strategies to trial options, and be clear about how you are going to measure and monitor the success of these strategies to establish whether they need adjustment moving forwards.
Our top ten tips for developing a flexible practice are:
- Champion wellbeing as part of the strive towards a positive, engaged practice culture, making flexible working a part of this overall commitment
- Empower individuals — encourage team members to consider how flexible working could benefit themselves and the wider team's wellbeing, the client and patient experience, and ultimately practice performance. Manage expectations about how proposals will be considered and how they should be communicated and agreed on
- Trial new approaches — give people the opportunity to try out different ways of flexible working. By making small changes, you can see what works and what does not, make a note of lessons learned and then make an adjustment before trying again. Establish how success will be determined and measured before trialling new ways of working
- Be consistent in your messaging — all team members should be treated fairly and consistently. While flexible working arrangements should be offered to the whole team rather than just some, not all proposals need to be accepted. Try to find a solution which works for individuals, the wider team and the practice. Communicate clearly the reasons for turning down any proposals and try to offer alternative solutions where possible
- Set and manage expectations — while flexible working is desired, and benefits can be seen, they should not be at the detriment of practice standards, efficiency, customer and patient care
- Ensure your flexible working arrangements reflect your values and behaviours as a team. Establish these and continually health check to ensure proposed changes align with them
- Delegate appropriately — while we all have our own strengths, remember that a strength over-used eventually becomes a weakness. Having a ‘can do’ attitude should not turn into an inability to delegate, leading to potential burnout. Delegation done well, with clear two-way communication, empowers individuals. On the flip side, ensuring open, honest and kind behaviours are encouraged, and with that, the ability to say no, where deemed appropriate
- Prioritise performance over visibility — model the right behaviours, working smart not hard. Leave when the shift ends; while there may be the odd emergency which prevents this, true emergencies will be occasional rather than the norm. Whether working remotely or on site, leaving on time maintains a good work–life balance which will allow you and the team to re-boot ready for the next day
- Use external and internal resources: Using tools such as culture or wellbeing surveys to provide hard evidence for evaluation of workplace wellbeing can help to identify how flexible working may fit into, and benefit a practice's framework. Seeking input from internal and external resources can help a practice to overcome barriers and identify the benefits of changes.
- Leverage technology — for most of us, our use of technology has increased significantly over the years. Maximise its capability and consider ways in which you can, rather than finding limitations where you cannot. When working remotely, use technology to remain connected, up to speed and part of the team.
Flexible working makes sense – for individuals, practices and the profession. Unforeseen factors have forced a rapid transformation and demonstrated our ability to work flexibly and move in an agile and responsive way. Now is the time to carry this forward by taking stock, identifying what has worked, what could work better and exploring the options that could work for you, your team and your business in the future.
- Choose a flexible approach and mindset when considering ways of working.
- Identify individual, team and business needs.
- Understand how flexibility can benefit all aspects of practice life and each role.