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Smarter business practices: Pros and cons of flexible working

Flexible working is being actively promoted by government and growing in popularity but can it work for financial advice firms? Fiona Bond talks to business owners, consultants and recruiters about the issues 

In 2014, the government introduced new flexible working legislation in what was hailed a step forward for workers’ freedom.

It was suggested that employees would be more productive and happier as a result, but fast forward two years the question remains; how popular has flexible working proved for the financial advice industry and can firms cope with such a style of working?

Founder of Chapters Financial, Keith Churchouse, says: “Many experts predicted that home working and its derivatives were the future. As an employer, we have to trust that if our staff are working from home, they are working. However, the reality we have experienced seems not to have occurred in the volumes anticipated.

“This failure could in part be leveled at the UK infrastructure systems that failed to roll out suitably fast broadband and fibre-optic services across the UK,” he adds.

Smarter working practices

In a bid to promote the benefits of flexible working, Work Wise UK organised “work wise week” which included a national “work from home day”.

The organisation says its role is to help make the UK one of the “most progressive economies” in the world by introducing “smarter working practices” which it believes brings significant gains to businesses’ productivity as well as increases skills, knowledge and the work/life balance of its employees.

Traditionally, flexible working has largely been seen as the domain of mothers with young children to care for, but many believe times are changing. Developments in technology, increased mobility and cost-cutting by businesses has made remote working more accessible for the masses and research has shown that those who are given the flexibility of working from home yield better results in job satisfaction, work performance and reduced stress.

It is an approach that Michelle Hoskins, founder of Standards International, believes financial advice firms should be embracing if they want to move with the times.

She explains: “The only way home working can be successful is if the business if focused on output, rather than time and effort, so for results-driven businesses it can be a fantastic driver of staff efficiency. Home working can bring huge benefits to a business; it prevents distraction and interruption which can take a while to recover from in an office environment and gives workers a chance to think.”

It is a sentiment echoed by Jessica Wood, managing director of financial services recruitment specialist Sandringham Wood (pictured above).

She says: “There are both pros and cons to working from home, but increasingly we are seeing a lot of people in the financial services industry looking to work remotely, especially within the paraplanning space where technology means you can do the job from anywhere.

“Allowing staff to work from home can be very beneficial to the smaller advice firms who have a focus on cost, and allows employers to recruit from a larger pool of talent, such as mothers looking to return to the industry. I think gradually we’re starting to see more open-mindedness in the industry towards flexi working.”

Ray Adams, founder of Cardiff-based Niche IFA, believes those working in the service industry need to be prepared to bestow the same flexibility upon their staff as they do their clients.

He explains: “Clients can request meetings outside of normal working hours and if we accommodate those needs, we should do the same by our employees. Of course, the ability of firms to be able to offer flexible working hours and home-working depends on the needs of the business and for many small firms, there is often a requirement to have people in the office to get certain tasks done, but I believe it’s an approach firms should be willing to consider if it benefits their staff.”

Adams speaks from experience; he previously hired a member of staff unable to travel into the office due to a disability and with the help of charity Scope he was able to recreate the office environment and systems in her own home. While there were a few adaptations to be made, Adams says the agreement worked for the duration of the time she worked for the firm.

Keeping control

But while Adams supports employees’ right to flexible working, the issue of trust remains a major hurdle for many businesses with a significant number of employers reluctant to have their staff work out of sight.

“There are those firms who are willing to embrace change and try a different style of working and then there are those who are set in their ways and prefer to keep their eye on their employees,” says Wood.

“Sometimes you do find people wanting to work from home for the wrong reasons and it very much has to be a two way street; the employer must have trust in their staff and a system of measurement which allows them to track the level of output, and the employee must shown discipline and work as they would in a normal office environment,” she adds.

Sheriar Bradbury, founder of London-based Bradbury Hamilton, agrees that measurement and control is crucial in ensuring that working from home is successful.

Bradbury Sheriar - Bradbury HamiltonSpace barHe believes that as technology advances, allowing staff to work remotely will grow in popularity as a means of cutting overheads, but cautions that the approach needs to be well thought through.

“My personal preference is that most roles are kept in-house as often jobs require the input of various different people which is easier to achieve in the office, but I do see the cost benefits to businesses of remote working. However, in order for it to be successful, companies need to be able to quantify what their staff are doing and this calls for a tight monitoring system and a great deal of trust,” he says.

“Some companies have become expert at this and mastered the whole process but I think it’s something that needs very careful consideration before it’s implemented.”

Wood agrees, pointing out that businesses need to be aware of the employment laws around home-working and understand their own responsibilities and duty of care towards their staff.

Government-run employment organisation ACAS specifies that the employer must take overall responsibility for assessing health and safety in the part of the home where the employee will work, and in some circumstances this responsibility can extend to other parts of the home. They also note that employers need to make clear that that homeworking is not a substitute for suitable care arrangements and the employee must ensure that dependents need to be looked after by someone else during working hours.

But for those who put in place a well-structured and well-coordinated system, Hoskins believe a home-working arrangement can “work beautifully.”

She says: “My advice to members of staff would be to put a solid business case forward to their employer, detailing how they could and should work in a way that would maximise their time and skills while benefiting the business in the short, medium and long term. In my view, team members should push for flexible working if they believe they and the firm will benefit.”

Adams agrees that providing staff with flexible working benefits both the individual and the business.

“You want your staff to work with you, not for you,” he says. “You need to create a culture whereby they feel trusted and respected and an environment that means they want to stay working for you. I’m a firm believer that company culture stems from the boss and my attitude passes down through my staff.

“If a member of my team needs flexibility to do certain things, then I look to accommodate that. If they’re happy in their personal life, they’re more likely to be happy in work but I don’t do it for that reason, I do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

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