Leading the way

The behaviour and attitudes of leaders was seen as one of the biggest enablers or barriers to flexible working by an overwhelming number of the people we spoke to. While many are increasingly committed to flexibility, fears around losing control, complexity of creating policies, and concerns about fairness, consistency or ‘getting it wrong’ mean it is easier for leaders to fall back on what they know.

Building cultures of trust, running small pilots, empowering teams to trial and develop their own solutions, sharing stories about what has worked and the benefits of flexible teams, and less over-working ‘at the top’ is key to moving forward with flexibility.

We as a sector should be the people who are thinking most about our people, and aspiring to be world leading in our approach to flexible working. If we can understand more about what each other is doing, embed the best, and achieve a shared understanding of what good looks like, then that would be a terrific platform to build on.

Paul Farmer, Chief Executive, Mind

Ultimately this is about leaders actively ‘leaning in’ to provide individuals with structural and systemic support to make flexibility work, as well as championing the importance of flexibility for building inclusive, diverse, highly impactful teams — with wellbeing at their heart.

Business planning and job design

Flexibility isn’t just about ‘working from home’ or a four day week. It is not about expecting people to do a full time role in fewer days with less pay. It is about leaders and mangers truly thinking differently and creatively about how they organise our work and design roles, and focussing resolutely on outcomes above hours worked.

The fundamental starting point - but so often the hardest thing in mission driven charities - is to prioritise and write a business plan which matches the resources the organisation has available.

This might mean making difficult decisions about what the organisation does not do, or at least not until additional resources are available. With this in place manageable jobs can then be designed and realistic objectives set for individuals.

There is a real risk of ‘fake flex’ - where roles are part time in name, contract, and pay but full time for workload - unless charity leaders make bold, purposeful decisions about priorities, focus, capacity, job design and saying ‘no’. By setting boundaries for themselves they give permission for others to set boundaries too.

The priority is to start job design with flexibility as a first principle and to ask managers to proactively consider how flexible working could be possible for every role.

For example, say you are open to job shares, part time or different working patterns. This also helps take the anxiety of ‘having the flexible conversation’ away from the candidate and opens the role to a much broader and more diverse field.

Find the flexibility in every role by breaking it down into the key activities to see which are location or time specific and how much time is needed. Then you can advertise the role with its flexible options.

Kirstie Axtens, Head of Employer Services, Working Families

Advertising all roles as flexible is the next critical step for creating a mindset of ‘flexibility first’ in organisations. It encourages everyone to have an open mind from the beginning.

Job shares, or multiple part time roles, can be very helpful options where a job is really too big for one for role but there isn’t enough budget for two full time post. They help avoid building overwork into positions at the start.

Really good practice involves employers actively supporting individuals to think about how their specific roles can be done differently and stepping up to put proper support and back-up in place for them. The onus absolutely should not all be on the individual to make things work.

At JobSharesWork we get the chance to work with and learn from job share partners at all levels and across many roles. What we hear time and time again is that job sharing can be transformative. Not just for individuals but for the organisations they work with. Job share partners report having better balance in their lives and feeling happier at work. Many job sharers form lasting partnerships and often seek new roles and promotion together.

Helen Reed, Co-Founder, JobSharesWork

Talent and opportunity

All too often, lack of flexibility, and the challenges of ‘ juggling’ the different elements of people’s lives can feel like an insurmountable barrier to career progression. At a time when we need a diverse pool of exceptional, motivated, passionate people working in the charity sector more than ever before, it is even more important that we shift our mindsets about how work can be done.

It is about finding, attracting and retaining amazing colleagues who are going to help you achieve your mission and ensuring genuine diversity of voice.

Charlotte Hill, CEO, The Felix Project

Offering proper flexibility can be a very important way to attract and retain talent - supporting people throughout their career and at different stages of their lives so we don’t lose the skills of people who can’t do ‘standard’ hours.

Since the pandemic, we have seen a marked shift in candidates' desire to achieve more agile ways of working in leadership roles. Boards are responding to this and there is an increasing openness to flexibility and the value it van add in securing, retaining and broadening talent. But it is still evolving — the more visible role models we have, the more it will give others the confidence to follow suit.

Katy Giddens, Director, Starfish Search

This is particularly important for the charity sector, which needs the best people but often has less budget headroom to attract and retain high quality talent. Crucially, this isn’t about old systems of flexibility that rely on behind the scenes overworking and burnout.

This is about properly designed flexible roles, supported by truly flexible and high trust cultures, that mean flexibility happens in practice and not just on paper.

Offering part time roles, reducing the number of days we expect staff to come into an office, flexing working hours around other commitments, has given us an edge in a very competitive recruitment market. As a smaller charity without a huge public profile, we’ve attracted and retained highly skilled staff because of our flexibility and that is great for our performance.

Kat Lee, Chief Executive, The Family Holiday Association

Job sharing was an excellent solution for me when I needed to reset the balance of a full time leadership role with personal commitments. Not only could I continue to grow and develop as a leader, sharing the role brought double the skills and perspective to the team. Together we were able to lead the team, balance our lives and still develop our careers.

Katie Hillitt, Co-Founder, JobSharesWork

Avoiding a two-tier workforce

The pandemic has opened our thinking about roles where flexibility seems harder. Even though large proportions of frontline delivery roles may need to be carried out in a certain place at a certain time, it’s likely that a proportion can be done anytime, anywhere. Maybe you can’t do the whole of your job remotely or flexibly, but perhaps can you do part of it.

What does this look like culturally? How do we ensure people working flexibly are fully included. What are the power dynamics? Is someone on two days viewed as valuable as someone full-time? What structures do we put in place to support belonging for people who work fewer days — and how do you support building relationships? Important to think about the risks of a two tier workforce.

Katharine Sacks-Jones, Chief Executive, Become

The pandemic has opened our thinking about roles where flexibility seems harder. Even though large proportions of frontline delivery roles may need to be carried out in a certain place at a certain time, it’s likely that a proportion can be done anytime, anywhere. Maybe you can’t do the whole of your job remotely or flexibly, but perhaps can you do part of it.

For front line staff, rather than location flexibility, it might be about hours worked and working patterns. Working in shifts has a similar outcome to any job share — there are two or more people who can do the same role — so it is essential that managers talk to individuals about their own personal goals and preferences.

Measures such as phased shift start times to avoid rush hour, staggered hours, and breaking up shifts are all ways to offer flexibility. Enabling front line staff to swap shifts or self roster also offers autonomy, demonstrates trust, and allows a greater degree of flexibility on a week by week or even day to day basis. The key is to think creatively and be open to alternatives, to find an option that works for everyone concerned.

It is also important to ensure equity once flexible working is in place. The pandemic has presented

opportunities to work differently which has benefited people who want more flexibility. Yet, the concern is that as people do start to return to offices, those who choose to remain as home based may be overlooked for promotion and other opportunities. This has highlighted a long term challenge for people who work flexibly if organisations do not put the right support in place.

Leaders and managers have a critical responsibility to overcome the creation of a two tier workforce where flexibility is concerned. Fairness and equity should be at the heart of all decision making. For example, full-time, office based staff should not be always the ones asked to do a new project. For bigger decisions, an equality impact assessment can ensure that people who work flexibly are not inadvertently disadvantaged.

Building cultures of trust and empowerment

While having a strong flexible working policy can be an important starting point, it is just the start of the journey for a truly flexible culture. Ultimately, flexibility isn’t about policies or rules. It is a mindset and culture of trust and empowerment, that focusses on outcomes and impact over hours worked, that will build a successful flexible working culture.

Another big thing we put in place was giving people control over their hours and that if they wanted to work different hours to what was seen as “normal” that they didn’t need to ask permission. Yes, they needed to communicate with colleagues and put it in their diary but they didn’t need to ask.

Lisa Freshwater, Director of Organisational Effectiveness, Blood Cancer UK

Building a culture of trust isn’t easy and takes time, honest conversations and a concerted effort to bring people with you. Forever Flex, a report by Mother Pukka, found that fear of loss of control over outcomes, working patters and habits is a key barrier to leading with trust around flexibility for many managers.

A lack of trust often comes from fear of losing control. If we want people to be more open to flex, first we need to empathise — what are they afraid is going to happen once the reins are loosened?

Flex Appeal Report, Mother Pukka

For charity managers required to deliver complex, sensitive, critical work with vulnerable people in a highly regulated environment — often at increasing volumes with decreasing resource post pandemic — the desire for control, and being able to ‘see’ your team, can understandably feel even more acute. It is not easy to think differently and creatively when there is so little time to get the work done.

Trust is key - there’s a fear about moving away from how we’ve always done things.

Katharine Sacks-Jones, Chief Executive, Become

Often, this fear of what you might lose can lead to a default position of creating rules, policies and

handbooks that can appear so complex that it seems easier to do nothing at all and default to ‘standard’ ways of working.

It’s understandable that some people will want all the details and have all the questions. But don’t design for them. Design for trust.

Lisa Freshwater, Director of Organisational Effectiveness, Blood Cancer UK

It takes trust to have the conversation in the first place, and again to explore new ways of working and allowing those to flourish.

Managers need to listen to the experiences and needs of others to understand people’s different working preferences and strengths. Only through safe and honest conversations can we make the most of individual talent and individual work styles.

It’s our job to treat our colleagues like grown ups. That doesn’t mean there won’t be some difficult conversations and negotiations along the way. It isn’t always going to be easy and we’ll definitely get things wrong sometimes and need to learn as we go. But starting with trust is the best way to engage people and find something that works.

John Hitchen, CEO, Renasi

Within all these considerations, putting outcomes and impact ahead of fixed ideas of when and where work should be done, will make all the difference to mindsets and help maintain focus on what really matters.

Role modelling from the top

Role modelling from leaders really matters when it comes to flexibility. Choosing a work pattern that promotes your own work/life balance sends a strong message that this is how you do business, and gives others confidence to make a request.

My working pattern means I can flex around my children, I get to see them more, and I work in different ways to achieve that. One way doesn’t suit everyone. Flexibility allows us to honour the other parts of who we are.

John Hitchen, CEO, Renasi

Just make sure you communicate clearly that this is a working pattern that suits you and not additional, unpaid working hours on top of your core hours. Otherwise, you could unwittingly set an expectation that all staff work longer hours.

There just aren’t enough role models and examples out there, which makes it feel scary and then people aren’t willing to risk doing things differently. Good examples build people’s confidence to experiment.

Tanya Stevens, Principal, Society

Yet it is not as simple as leaders just deciding to work ‘more flexibly’ themselves, especially in smaller organisations where leaders straddle both strategic and operational roles. It is not unusual, especially since the pandemic hit, to hear leaders say that they spend the working day in back to back meetings. Everything else — report writing, administrative work, thinking time — must take place outside of their working hours.

When need and workload is so high, the pressure to do more, lean in, and shoulder the load can feel overwhelming.

On the whole, people who work flexibly overdo it rather than underdo it. We need to think about how we set boundaries and switch off. There is a risk of working too hard because people are grateful for flexibility and are overcompensating.

Katharine Sacks-Jones, CEO, Become

There is potential for flexible working to lead to a negative impact on wellbeing if it is not carefully managed.

There is a risk that, if people are empowered to manage their own time, it may actually be more difficult for them to give themselves permission to stick within their contracted hours. This is particularly true in charities — when staff are highly motivated by the cause they are supporting.

Presenteeism has changed, it’s no longer coats on the back of the chair, now it’s about having permission to turn off your devices and not be answering online chats in the evenings and over the weekend. This low level, in the back of your mind expectation, to be “always on” is really not good for mental health.

Kirstie Axtens, Head of Employer Services, Working Families

Wellbeing considerations can be very different depending on roles, circumstance and life stages: a working from home arrangement that works for a working parent, might not work for a younger person, people in shared accommodation, or someone delivering complex support roles like counselling or helplines.

Establishing strong peer networks of other supportive leaders who also work flexibility can be incredibly helpful in moving away from defining worth and status by ‘busyness’. Such networks provide opportunities to share good practice, give each other ‘permission’ to balance and show their ‘whole selves’, all of which can be incredibly helpful. Visibly setting aside time for school pick up, going for a walk and setting an out of office on holidays are simple but important places to start.

When I have worked flexibly in senior positions, a talented team of fantastic part time workers has grown alongside me, bringing huge value and skill.

Becky Hewitt, Chair, Flexible Working Group

In our research, the organisations that were most advanced in terms of a flexible working culture were the ones in which flexibility was the default position.

It’s not ‘put a business case and we will assess it’. It’s ‘we start from the point of view of yes and work backwards’. We don’t see asking for flexible working as a benefit, it’s the way we do the work!

Kathryn Howard, Assistant Director of People, OD and HR, Samaritans

This starts from the point of advertising roles as being flexible but it’s important that high expectations and the courage to do things differently are set at the top of organisations, to support consistent practice. The senior team needs to ensure that flexibility is seen as normal practice and available to everyone in some way: it’s not a benefit or an exception, but just the way work is done

Flip it round: why wouldn’t you, not why should you.

Diane Lightfoot, Business Disability Forum

The role of the trustee board

Trustees have an important role to play in setting up the conditions for CEOs and executive leaders to work flexibly. Trustees also have a role in thinking carefully about what organisational support leaders need to work differently and challenging the executive to set realistic goals and plans.

Taking on a chairing role can be daunting. In our latest survey 62% of chairs were spending four days or more on their chairing role, with 32% spending more than seven days per month. It’s worth exploring how to support the chair, for example, by reducing or sharing the load. Vice chairs and admin support can help.

Rosalind Oakley, Chief Executive, Association of Chairs

Beyond support specifically for leaders, the board has a wider role in overseeing a flexible working culture.

This doesn’t mean reviewing all flexible working requests — something we came across in our research — but rather taking a scrutiny approach. The board’s role is to ask the right questions: what is our approach to flexible working, how many people are working flexibly in practice, what else can we do?

As a mum of two young kids myself, I know how important the flexibility to sometimes be at the school gate, or be at school assemblies is for me. Having the flexibility in my role to be able to do that is something I now expect from an employer, otherwise I simply wouldn’t take a role.

Charlotte Hill, CEO, The Felix Project

Perhaps most importantly of all, leaders — both executive and trustees — need to be vocal and visible champions of flexible working. They should be advocating for why it matters, walking the talk through promoting flexible cultures, sharing their experiences, experiments, and learnings, and speaking out about what works. The more we normalise flexibility, the less stigma and exclusion will exist.

Support, education and inspiration for managers

It is so easy for line managers to be put off flexible working as it feels too complex, too policy heavy, too difficult to be fair and consistent, and too easy to get wrong. Many are taking great strides, but it is easy to feel overwhelmed by complexity, loss of control, aversion to change, or a fear of ‘getting it wrong’.

We asked people what the barriers were to flexibility - often it was line managers.

Kathryn Howard, Assistant Director of People, OD and HR, Samaritans

Some managers are more inclined towards flexibility, others run services or teams where flexible working options seem more straightforward to implement. Differing attitudes and team circumstances can lead to different practice in different teams. Managers told us they feel the pressure of needing to balance providing equitable access to roles, ensuring that flexible options are fairly available for all staff and making sure workload is shared equally across roles and teams.

The detail and complexity of implementation can make it all-too-easy to lose sight of the huge benefits of flexible teams in terms of productivity, impact, wellbeing, talent and inclusion.

Our flexible working arrangement — a combination of remote-working, part-time hours, compressed hours, and flexing around caring and other commitments — have had no bearing on the quality, creativity and impact of our work. It wasn’t even in question. That high level of trust in us to deliver, and not ask about the where and how, is incredibly empowering and motivating.

Claire Reynolds, Head of Digital Transformation, Changing Faces

It’s vital that leadership provides not only high expectations about flexibility being for everyone, but also practical support for line managers to implement flexibility in their teams. Coaching, training, encouragement to experiment, story sharing, access to examples of good practice, workshops, and the time to have conversations with other managers about what’s working are all key.

Provide support to line managers, they want to do the right thing and want to be fair. Education and training can boost confidence levels.

Laura Bennett, Carers Trust

Managers need support to understand the different types of flexibility available, have honest and empathetic conversations that respect people as individuals, think creatively about job design, tackle proximity bias, and think about good practice that supports teams who are working flexibly.

For example, it is good practice for managers to support their teams with clear flexible working protocols that the whole team can sign up to: this is how we will communicate, this is when I am available, this is how I will take responsibility for asking for help with my wellbeing if I need it, this is how we use our tech etc. This helps create a level playing field — and gives a clear structure for new team members too.

Our approach was to say to managers, this is a non-negotiable — if you don’t think flexibility can work, let us work with you to show you how it can be done.

Experimentation and innovation

Managers shouldn’t feel pressure to come up with perfect or fixed model. No organisation will come up with something that will work for everyone all the time. And no one has yet found the ideal model for balancing life, work, community and productivity. But that shouldn’t stop us trying.

One person’s flexibility can be someone else’s rigidity depending on home circumstances, type of role, front line versus office based. Timing and breaking up the day can help everyone.

Laura Bennett, Carers Trust

There isn’t one solution, different approaches will work in different situations. The best solutions come from having the courage to experiment, take small steps, make mistakes, adjust, learn and improve, be honest about what is and isn’t working, and focus on individual needs.

It feels like a journey, it shouldn’t be a bounce from one way of working to another.

Sarah Milsom, Director of Communications and Engagement, Relate

When transitioning to new ways of working we need to be willing to test, consult and regularly review. Otherwise, we risk either finding a new form of inflexibility or excluding people in new ways.

Sharing stories about different approaches widely is critical for building confidence and knowledge.

Smaller organisations may find it easier to rapidly test and implement new models of working, while larger organisations may have more resources and capacity to draw on. Often it is teams themselves, who are experts in their areas, who are best placed to develop and experiment with flexible ways of working that work for them, and the outcomes they need to deliver

You should ask the experts: the people actually doing the job! I saw a great example of pandemic good practice in a housing association where several teams delivered the same services. They told the teams to work out among themselves how they wanted to organise the work which they did. Teams all came up with different ways of delivering that were equally successful.

Kirstie Axtens, Head of Employer Services, Working Families

Setting boundaries

Both organisations and individuals need to understand that it’s OK to say ‘no’, to set boundaries, and to suggest different approaches to how flexibility can work. Sometimes there are practical constraints and organisations providing services need to balance the needs of both the people providing and receiving the service.

The challenge is more for those on the frontline delivering services, where the need for flexibility for staff needs to be balanced with delivering for beneficiaries.

Paul Farmer, Chief Executive, Mind

Not everything is possible, and everyone involved needs to be open minded.

It is okay to say no, and set boundaries, and suggest alternatives — on both sides. Just because one way of being flexible won’t work — it doesn’t mean there isn’t another option.

Kirstie Axtens, Head of Employer Services, Working Families

It is also important to consider other needs in the workforce, for example younger people whose learning may benefit from working with colleagues in person, and the benefits face to face connections can have on team culture, moral, mental health, and creativity. Within all these considerations, putting outcomes ahead of fixed ideas of how work should be done will make all the difference.

Below we highlight what we heard in our conversations with leaders and managers about the most common barriers and misconceptions about flexible working and how to overcome them.

Top barriers and myths for managers and how to overcome them

For employers, turn it from "why should I say yes?" to "why shouldn't I say yes?"

Diane Lightfoot, Business Disability Forum

1. Our productivity will suffer

There is a concern that people will work less in a less controlled structure, but statistics show that offering flexibility can actually result in higher levels of productivity, but also retention (Forbes, 2016). Flexible working increases morale and loyalty which can lead to more, and better quality, output.

There is a perception that if you work from home, you are less present, and less productive which is actually not the case at all. As senior leaders we will always need to champion trust. As I say, if you don’t trust your colleagues, why are you employing them?

Ruth Blayze, Executive Director of Retail and Communities, Scope

2. It won't be fair on frontline staff

Flexibility needs to be viewed as not just about geography and hours. That is the starting point. It also needs to be seen in terms of adapting to individuals’ changing needs and scope for autonomy alongside business needs. One form of flexibility is also unlikely to work organisation wide, or consistently across all teams and roles, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t scope for a different form of flexibility to be offered in its place.

If you’re in A&E, you need nurses in A&E. So, you’ve got to recognise that there are practical constraints about what you can do as an organisation, and if you’re providing services with people, you need to balance between those providing and receiving the services. But that doesn’t mean you can’t actively think and consider what a flexible working policy or approach might create the opportunity for.

Paul Farmer, CEO, Mind

3. I am so overwhelmed with how much I have to do, I don't know where to start with role modelling flexible working.

Role modelling can feel daunting and difficult, especially when leading an organisation. But ultimately it is one of the biggest enablers of change. Leaders and managers need to think about how they meaningfully demonstrate flexibility on their own terms. Setting boundaries around availability and respecting the boundaries of others sends a strong signal that enables others to do the same.

When I became interim CEO I made a decision to stop working weekends. It had been my only option when I was home schooling my children for part of the week. But I had got into the habit and carried on even when they went back to school. The impact was immediate: when I stopped working at the weekend, everyone stopped working at the weekend.

Sarah Vibert, Interim Chief Executive, NCVO

4. It's too expensive

Sometimes flexible working can be seen as an expensive luxury. Additional costs often cited are costs related to technology or home working spaces, and the perception of extra costs for extra head count. Yet flexible working reduces absenteeism, improves performance and reduces staff turnover (CIPD 2018).

Alongside opportunities for cost savings from reduced office footprint, can we really afford the hidden costs of being inflexible?

5. There is too much work to do — our beneficiaries depend on us

Often the hardest thing in the mission driven charities is to prioritise, accept you can’t do everything, and write a business plan which matches the resources the organisation has available. With this in place manageable jobs can then be designed and realistic objectives set for individuals. It is understandable for hiring managers to default to one full time role — if they have the budget and work to match this.

But offering flexible or part-time roles does not need to mean that less work gets done. The organisation and system need to lean into planning where the rest of the work should go. Is another part time role required? Is it a job share?

This avoids having an individual being asked to do an impossible role that is too big for contracted hours, or a team that is having to absorb an unreasonable workload.

I have always found that by trusting colleagues to deliver in a way that works for them and the organisation — allowing as much flexibility as is possible and practical for the role and the team — colleagues deliver in spades and repay the flexible approach with brilliant work and loyalty to the organisation.

Charlotte Hill, Chief Executive, The Felix Project

6. It won't be fair on staff who don't work flexibly

A key message here is that flexibility is open to everyone, and working patterns and practices that treat everyone as humans and individuals can benefit us all. It’s key to have proper planning and protocols in place so that ways of working are clear to everyone, and any additional work is carefully allocated within the organisation so expectations are fair.

Sometimes people are opposed to compressed hours because everyone else is working until 19:00 too and it doesn’t seem fair. But the answer isn’t to level down to less good practice and prevent or limit flexibility because of systemic issues, it’s to address workload elsewhere.

Kathryn Howard, Assistant Director of People, OD and HR, Samaritans

7. It is too complex — I don't know where to start

Don’t feel pressure to come up with perfect or fixed model. No organisation will come up with something that will work for everyone all the time. The best solutions come from having the courage to experiment, take small steps, make mistakes, adjust, learn and improve. Be honest about what is and isn’t working and focus on individual needs.

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 10 February 2022