Small business and flexibility: Friend or foe?


Here, we look at how small businesses are driving a change in culture towards flexible working. 

 Small business and flexibility: Friend or foe?


Here, we look at how small businesses are driving a change in culture towards flexible working. 

The stigma that small businesses are ‘anti’ flexible working is outdated. More small businesses are offering flexible working options than ever before. A new competition with a £1,000 prize launched today, by the flexibility experts Timewise, to find the UK’s most flexible small business. The competition, in partnership with PwC, Business is Great, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Smallbusiness.co.uk, aims to challenge misconceptions about small businesses and working practices – which we outline here.

New evidence points to the fact that small businesses are driving significant culture change in work and are often willing to adopt flexible working practices, in a bid to attract the right talent (insert link to previous article). Employment minister Jo Swinson, of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which is leading the Business is Great campaign, says that flexible working ‘will ensure that there is a cultural shift towards more modern, 21st century workplaces that enable more innovative and effective ways of working’. 

Despite a shift towards these more modern ways of working, by contrast there are still some very antiquated myths about flexibility and the supposed ‘headaches’ for small businesses that refuse to go away, which Timewise and SmallBusiness.co.uk tackle here:

1. ’Part time’ would mean ‘part commitment’

With 8.7 million people in the UK who work full time but would like to work flexibly, there is a vast potential pool of talent ready to grab flexible working opportunities with both hands. Karen Mattison, co-founder of flexibility experts Timewise says the notion that flexible structures only work for ‘low-skilled jobs, with little responsibility, belongs to the last century’. She says, ‘For ten years, we have been placing candidates who possess solid experience, skill and ability with employers, who bring enormous value and levels of commitment to business. The key benefit for employers is that they can access incredible, business-enriching talent within their own financial capabilities.’ 

For example, Decision Technology, a 15-people strong consultancy based in central London recruited a Financial Controller/Business Analyst through Timewise.  By opening the role to flexibility, they attracted Barbara Smith, an Oxford maths graduate with a post-graduate certificate in economics from Birkbeck. She had originally qualified as a Chartered Accountant with PwC, and spent a large part of her career at Bank of America, supporting their derivatives trading businesses. Barbara was applying for work to coincide with her youngest daughter starting school and was specifically looking for a part-time role to fit with family. At 20 hours a week with Design Technology, that was exactly what she found. And her commitment is 100 per cent, within the hours she has to give – just as with a full time worker.

2. You can’t trust remote workers / remote workers will be less productive

Advancements in technology mean that many tasks can now be fulfilled from home, at least some of the time. Despite this, figures from the Office of National Statistics show that 87 per cent of workers are still primarily office-based. Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School says the main reason is ‘[a lack of] trust, and managers who don’t know how to manage people remotely.’ Studies show that fears about remote workers being ‘untrustworthy’ and less productive are unfounded; a 2013 study by the London School of Economics and Political Science found that employees able to work from home are more productive than their office-bound colleagues because they are less distracted, grateful for flexibility and save time on commuting.

Gaenor Bagley, Head of People at PwC says introducing small changes, such as flexible start and finishing times when needed, is a journey: ‘Great things can be achieved when you establish a pattern that works for both the employer and the employee, and it is often the small changes that make the most difference. Flexibility often isn’t always about a formal arrangement. Frequently it’s about introducing a bit more give and take into our ways of working and trusting people to use a little more autonomy responsibly.’

(Statistics and quote from Professor Cary Cooper from ‘Why aren’t we all working from home today?’ Guardian Work Blog, 30th April 2014; London School of Economics and Political Science, October 2013.)

3. Hiring flexible workers will mean more red tape

Often, employers dismiss flexible working options for fear of extra red tape – when in fact hiring somebody to work part time or remotely works in exactly the same way as hiring a full time employee. There is a wealth of advice on this topic available for SMEs on the Business is Great website, which provides clear, succinct information on employment law and regulation, training opportunities and much more: http://www.greatbusiness.gov.uk/employment-and-skills/.

4. It’s hard to find people who want to work flexibly

Many small businesses owners see the benefits of offering part time hours (such as the ability to hire in a candidate with £50,000 worth of skill and ability, for £30,000 if you do so on a three-day week). However, they don’t consider this a real option because they don’t know where to find the talent. Timewise was established to bridge this gap and make the flexible work market more visible. Timewise has a network of 60,000 people seeking flexible work, each possessing exceptional skills and experience across a range of employment sectors. Emma Stewart, co-founder of Timewise, offers advice specifically to small businesses on designing roles to attract the best talent in this short video

5. There are no clear advantages for business

As work in the UK changes, the boom in flexibility offers multiple benefits to small business – including ones that affect the bottom line.  These include being able to hire two skilled members of staff for the price of one; having access to a wider, more diverse talent pool and retaining brilliant staff for the long term. In fact, 90 per cent of small businesses are now believed to offer flexible working options to staff, and some of the most interesting working arrangements can be found in the sector.

(Statistic from ‘Flexible working rights for all’, BBC Online, 30th June 2014.)

In a bid to prove this, Timewise, Timewise, in partnership with PwC, Business is Great, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and media partner Smallbusiness.co.uk has launched a competition to find and reward the UK’s Most Flexible Small Business. The competition is open to businesses with between two and 249 employees, where many work part time or remotely. The winner will receive a £1,000 cash prize and have a three minute video produced about their business. Businesses can nominate themselves here.

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