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How can businesses meet increasing demands for flexible working from the millennial workforce?

David Forsdyke, managing director of Michael Page Human Resources, Legal and Policy

With increasing demands for flexible working options from the newest generation of UK workers, the traditional 9-5 is fast becoming a thing of the past – but does this mean the same thing to everyone? What is the best way to implement flexible working within your business?

Since new legislation came into force in 2014, all UK employees have the right to request flexible working. Almost four years down the line, we could ask ourselves if this has successfully been implemented, and whether or not there is still work to be done in order to achieve better working environments for all.

We recently hosted a breakfast seminar for over 150 HRDs, to discuss how flexibility can truly work for everyone, and a key topic that was discussed was the gap between expectations from the millennial workforce when it comes to flexible working, and what is currently available to them within most UK businesses.

The millennial generation has shown a lot more concern than previous generations about the lack of flexibility within the workplace. The fact is that businesses will have to respond to this shift in expectations from a generation that will make up 50 per cent of the workforce by 2020, or else they may find themselves behind the curve.

A recent study we conducted revealed that over 62% of millennials expect flexible working to come as standard, yet 2 in 10 (20%) millennial respondents have been actively refused flexible working options, and 6 in 10 (60%) millennials who have worked (or have asked to work) flexibly have felt judged or penalised for doing so.

We approached a number of business directors and HR professionals to discuss the most successful way to implement flexible working within an organisation, and it was agreed that in order for it to have a strong enough impact on a company’s culture and workforce, it needs to be encouraged and agreed at board level, before it is implemented by an HR department.

Matthew Taylor – appointed by Theresa May to lead a review into modern employment practices and current CEO of the Royal Society of Arts, co-presented our breakfast seminar. He agreed that having this support at board level improves communication throughout the organisation, making it easier for employees to request alternative working hours without feeling judged by their superiors.

He added that although you must understand your business, clients, and the general perimeter you’re working in to successfully implement a more flexible working environment, a critical step is to talk to your staff and to continue to fully engage them - if your employees want to work flexibly, they will be best placed to help you design a model that works for your organisation.

The truth is that flexible working can be just as beneficial for businesses as it is for employees. All companies are looking to engage their workforce at a much more significant level, and as an organisation, you have to be a first mover by being as flexible and dynamic as you can be, if you want to attract the right talent and prevent attrition rates from rising.

When we talk about challenges with implementing flexible working, we should distinguish the bottom and higher ends of the labour market. A key issue at the bottom end of the labour market is that flexibility is often one-way, where organisations expect flexibility from their workers through zero hour or low hour contracts, but most of the decision making sits with the employer and not the individual.

At the higher end of the labour market, employees who wish to combine their work with other life goals, such as caring for relatives or children, or any other life projects, are not always given the right to do so.

To counter these issues, some businesses choose to implement new technology and processes to allow their employees to easily request flexible working, while other organisations drive internal campaigns with senior spokespeople to promote genuine two-way flexibility.

We all want a sense of meaning and purpose at work, millennials especially, and technological improvements, flexibility and better communication will create more fulfilling working environments.

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