Six things you should consider when building a flexible workforce

How to make your business more adaptable without harming morale.

by Domonique McRae
Last Updated: 31 Jul 2017

These are tumultuous times. As if the big leap in technological change wasn’t enough for businesses to contend with, we’re also going through political upheaval and there’s a lack of certainty about the future of our trading relationship with Europe and the rest of the world. Consequently many organisations are looking to create a flexible and scalable workforce which can adapt readily and efficiently to the ever-changing economic climate. 

The best way to do this depends greatly on the nature and needs of a particular business. It can range from ensuring that staff can be deployed flexibly across different sites to wholesale restructures of the workforce.

Any change can prove difficult if standard job descriptions and contracts of employment have been in place which see staff working rigidly and without alteration. In some cases it may be unlawful to make the desired change whereas in others it can adversely impact workforce morale if not managed carefully.

When treading the delicate balance between the needs of the business and the effectiveness of the workforce, it's worth bearing the below points in mind. 

1. Consider flexible working arrangements

Can you make arrangements for your staff to maximise flexibility in busier and quieter periods? Evaluating and adjusting your mix of full-time, part-time, and fixed-term employees according to production needs can assist with workload demand, while supporting employees’ desires for work-life balance; an increasingly important element of job satisfaction.

Consideration could also be given to zero-hours contracts or agencies. Developing a relationship with an agency who knows your business requirements can go a long way in being able to recruit staff quickly during peaks.

Finally, employees have the right to request flexible working. Typically these concern flexible start and finish times and/or the ability to work part-time. Whilst employers are obliged to deal with requests from eligible employees in a ‘reasonable manner’ e.g. by considering the advantages and disadvantages and holding a meeting with the employee, it can also be an opportunity for employers to manage their own business needs.

2. Update your employment contracts

Complete an audit of your existing terms and conditions of employment and consider whether any of the following clauses could be useful:

• Mobility clauses permitting relocation of staff.
• A clause requiring employees to undertake other duties if reasonable and necessary.
• A short-time working clause to allow you to temporarily reduce contractual days/hours.
• A lay-off clause for situations when you cannot provide any work for employees on a temporary basis which allows the reduction or cessation of pay during these times.
If the relevant clauses do not appear in the contracts held by the existing workforce then you may have to consider an organisation-wide roll out of the same terms and conditions and consult with your staff on the proposals. The complexity, timeframe and lawfulness of these changes will vary so it is important to seek expert advice before their introduction. 

3. Think about annualising hours

You could consider averaging out employee hours according to peaks and troughs throughout the year. The employee would still be paid in equal monthly instalments but you would have greater control over working patterns to maximise productivity and efficiency. It can also allow overtime payments to be removed and consolidated into basic pay calculations thus reducing the overall, annual salary costs.

You could also consider introducing a ‘Time-off-in-Lieu’ (TOIL) system – providing time-off during quiet periods in exchange for working additional hours during busier times. TOIL is usually paid at an employee’s basic salary and you can tailor your policy to suit business need. In many cases businesses will introduce core hours but beyond this, no set hours are applicable.
Your policy should direct staff to carry out their duties within contracted hours and to have any TOIL agreed in advance.

4. Do not be put-off from outsourcing work

Some businesses try to avoid outsourcing due to fears this could lead to greater expense. However, passing over work to a third party during busy times can ensure you meet your needs without feeling the strain. Your workforce will lack in productivity if it becomes overloaded with tasks that could be outsourced in the short term.

A good place to start would be with simple administrative tasks or you could consider sharing some services with another business, for example, your payroll and accounts. Employers should however be mindful that outsourcing can trigger the applicability of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) regulations 2006 ("TUPE") and could mean that affected employees may transfer to the entity to whom the work is being outsourced. Whilst this would trigger consultation obligations it would also have the effect of reducing the size of the workforce, without the associated redundancy costs.

5. Do not ignore your employees

Communication and collaboration is key to successfully creating a flexible workforce. You may be surprised at the number of employees who are eager and willing to embrace a more flexible approach; the new generation of workers place a high value on flexibility.

Information on the proposals should be provided to staff before implantation and the employees should have the opportunity to raise concerns, present their views and suggest alternatives. Consultation can either be individual or collective (depending on the nature and potential impact of the changes) and must be undertaken with a view to reaching agreement where possible.

It is also important to ensure you make every effort to reassure staff that jobs are safe (if applicable). This is especially important to maintain staff morale post-Brexit as Unions have warned that some companies are using Brexit as an excuse to cut jobs and exploit their workers’ lack of rights.

6. Don't assume that employees have one skill set

Businesses must look beyond the idea that employees are not adaptable. Often staff are employed on the basis of a very narrow job description without consideration of their other skills and attributes. If performance is an issue or if the nature of the work being carried out becomes less pressing to the needs of the business, it makes sense to at least consider re-deployment to other areas.

Moving employees may require additional and specific training but it is generally a cost-effective way to develop the business. This is because employees who have the ability to provide a wider set of skills will assist in providing the flexibility needed by businesses in this changing economic climate (as duties they undertake can be varied according to business need). The opportunity to undertake training may also become an attractive quality for employees which may set them apart from competitors.

Domonique McRae is a solicitor in the employment team at SA Law


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