Just a few years ago hybrid or flexible working was unheard of, but the rollercoaster that was the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 saw this change forever. As people across the UK suddenly found themselves working full-time from home, they began to understand the benefits associated with it.

Even after lockdowns were lifted and people could go back into the office, many were reluctant to return to the traditional five-day office week, instead embracing a hybrid work model. With Gen Z and Millennials – the rising majority in the workplace – demanding a strong work-life balance, it seems unlikely we will ever return to fully working in an office.

Coming back to the present, a new Flexible Working Legislation has just come into place. Employees now have the legal right to request flexible working from their first day in a job, as well as making a flexible working request twice every 12 months (previously this was once). However, after years of flexible and hybrid working being commonplace in the world of work, this legislation isn’t enough for employees in today’s working world.

So, when regulation isn’t aligning with employee’s reality, what can HR leaders do?

Evolving employee needs

Workplace flexibility isn’t just a nice to have any more; it’s fundamental. Whether that means, being able to work around the children’s school run or log on from the ski slopes, a good salary isn’t the sole driver of employee retention and engagement.

As such, companies that are falling behind in their approach to flexibility should not be surprised when they struggle to retain employees or hire top talent in the first place. In my opinion, the latest legislation should not be considered the benchmark, it’s the bare minimum. And employees expect more.

Today’s workplace looks very different to that of pre-2020; employees are no longer expected to sacrifice their work-life balance for the nine-to-five (or longer) grind, sitting in the car or on the train for hours-long round trips, while trying to juggle caregiving responsibility. For employees who had to journey into the office every day five years ago, this new Flexible Working Bill may have seemed unprecedented, but today, it’s too little, too late.

Employers can’t expect engaged, loyal and productive staff, without giving anything back. Offering true workplace flexibility enables employees to work around their life without having to make sacrifices. For example, ‘anytime, anywhere’ policies that enable employees to work from anywhere for a certain amount of the year are the types of truly flexible policies that convey that the work-life balance of employees comes first.

Why are flexible policies important? Our latest Women the Workplace survey found that flexibility would encourage over half of Brits (53%) to take a new job, second only to a pay increase – relaying how important flexibility is in the battle for talent.

Practice what you preach

A company’s core values must be showcased in every aspect of the workplace. For example, if trust is a key value for a company, but employees have to come into the office five days a week, they may feel the company doesn’t have confidence in them to do their job and may begin looking for a new one. Employees want to join companies that align with their own personal values. So, if a company’s work environment doesn’t fit with the values it projects, the business will struggle to retain staff.

To mitigate the risk of inauthentic values, companies need to listen to their people. Taking the time to speak with employees, ask them for feedback and understand what the company could offer that would make them feel heard. Ask for vital insights on what employees expect from flexibility frameworks or policies. Companies must then take this feedback onboard and discuss the best ways to incorporate it into existing work structures. Actioning employee feedback will ensure that the company meets employee expectations while highlighting what the company values – its people.

No two employees will have the same expectations; therefore, no two companies can implement the same policies. This is why having nuances within your flexible working policies and frameworks that are easy to understand and apply to individual circumstances is important, it enables employees to feel empowered. Beyond surveys, it’s also important companies keep an open-door policy to encourage honest conversations and allow employees to share any struggles they have with current policies or suggestions to improve them.

Adapting to challenges

When talking about flexible working, it would be remiss not to recognise the difficulties associated with bolder policies such as ‘anytime, anywhere’ working. It can be a challenging long-term offering as it is a huge business commitment which takes a lot of planning and ongoing maintenance.

Allowing employees to work remotely is great for employee flexibility but can make it difficult to maintain company cohesion among dispersed teams. There is also the issue of navigating legal and compliance issues linked to employment laws which can vary from country to country.

However, with increasing access to a global workforce, HR leaders are becoming more familiar with creating a sense of community even when employees aren’t all in the same room. The most important thing is for HR leaders to invest in the right communication, collaboration and productivity tools to facilitate remote work and establishing clear policies and expectations including communication norms and regular check-ins. Think about implementing tools, such as video platforms or chat apps, that enable employees to connect with one another on topics outside of work. Companies could encourage employees to create groups around hobbies they are interested in and send out invites to their colleagues, this facilitates bonding time even if it isn’t happening face to face.

Companies need to remember their values when creating any flexible working policies, including ‘anytime, anywhere’, as fostering a culture of trust and autonomy will empower remote employees. This is where providing training for managers on leading distributed teams will come in handy.

It’s also important to conduct a thorough needs assessment to understand employee preferences alongside organisational requirements. Giving HR leaders access to this data will allow them to develop a comprehensive flexible working framework with clear guidelines on processes and expectations that addresses the needs of employees and the company.

Remember, life is ever-changing so what works one week, might not the next. Regulation is continuing to evolve, albeit slowly, but forward-thinking companies will ignore the bare minimum required by the legislations and take it upon themselves to drive the change employees need. When employees are happy, the whole organisation benefits.

People & Culture Director at HiBob | Website | + posts

Toby is an expert in modern-HR. In his role as People & Culture Director, Toby is entrusted with maintaining the happiness of employees and building a strong company culture across the organisation – while HiBob supports the wider industry to do the same. Toby Hough is driven by unlocking the business impact of strong organisational culture and people strategy. Having previously served as a member of management teams representing the people function, Toby has a solid understanding of the people challenges faced by growing organisations.