Rethink the rules with flexible working

The traditional ways of working and policies don't always cut it – and many businesses are reaping the rewards of alternative structures.
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The traditional nine-to-five work model is constantly being tipped on its head. The 40-hour work week doesn't represent the fast-paced reality of modern life, nor does it acknowledge the flexibility that employees now need in order to be at their best. 

The pandemic demonstrated what can be achieved when people manage their own schedules. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive: employees found ways to slot their work in and around other commitments, as well as innovative ways to look after their physical and mental health.

For small businesses, this is a great opportunity to play around with different work patterns and structures. Flexible and employee-led work patterns are not only a minimum requirement for job candidates right now – they can also help you develop a more diverse and inclusive workplace. Consider how these alternative policies, patterns and structures might work for you.

Route 1: Four-day work weeks

Probably the most well-known non-traditional work pattern, four-day work weeks have been trialed en masse across the world over the past couple of years. In the UK, for instance, 72% of employees who trialed it in 2022 reported that they could get as much done over four days as they would over five, according to financial comparison site NerdWallet. A less dramatic alternative is the nine-day fortnight, which sees employees working nine days over a two-week period. 

Pros. For employees, this means having more control over their time, as well as potentially increasing their productivity. For companies, a four-day work week or nine-day fortnight can reduce the running costs of office space. 

Cons. Expecting everybody to be able to complete the same amount of work in less time can cause significant stress. Managers and leaders need to be able to adjust workloads on the fly and keep everybody happy.

Route 2: Unlimited holiday

In the US, the average number of paid vacation days that staff members can take is 10. This varies across the world; for instance, it's about 20 to 25 days in many places in Europe, such as Denmark, the Netherlands, France and the UK. An alternative approach is not to track paid vacation time at all and, instead, trust that people will get the job done in their own time. 

Pros. This is a relatively rare perk, so it might attract a lot of candidates to your job opening. It's great for employee retention and happiness, too, because it signals that senior staff aren't interested in micromanaging their teams.

Cons. Although unlikely, these sorts of policies can be abused – you have to put faith in your staff that that won't happen. On the contrary, some businesses find that employees don't take enough holiday for fear of being too absent. 

Route 3: Fully remote work

For a lot of service-based and digital-first businesses, remote work might by now be the norm. The upswing in productivity that comes with employees no longer needing to commute has led to some companies offering entirely remote roles (and saving on office rent). Music app Spotify implemented a ‘work from anywhere’ policy in 2021 – as long as it didn't cause massive disruption to its teams.

Pros. Remote work can be a godsend for employees with family commitments, such as new parents and elderly caregivers. Allowing workers to be agile and on the move can also increase inspiration and creativity for certain teams. 

Cons. The success of this style of work is dependent on the role. It can be a dream for jobs that are largely screen-based. For other roles, such as customer-facing service positions and manufacturing, remote work isn't always possible. 

Route 4: Fractional work

People with multiple skill sets might opt to work fractionally: in other words, they work part-time for a number of employers and their hours at each collectively add up to about the same amount as a full-time job. You might offer this type of employment to someone you don't need too frequently; for instance, you might not need a full-time chief finance officer, but a part-time one would be helpful.

Pros. This is a valuable employment set-up for people who want to be in charge of their own schedules and who want the buzz of working on multiple projects at once. For employers, it means that the cost of that person's salary is lower than that of a full-time member of staff. 

Cons. Hiring somebody who wants to work fractional hours means that their priorities are split – and, by extension, it means that they might not be available when there's a lot to get done. It's important to set expectations from the get-go. 

This article was first published in How to Start a Business 2023. To purchase a copy or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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