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#AskCharlie: is it fair to offer flexible working only to parents?

“We are keen to offer flexible working to those with young families. Is it fair to offer this to them only and not to others?”

Every week, our panel of HR experts suggest how to tackle a problem sent in from our community. Have you got a current issue you would like us to address? Email [email protected] and we’ll see if we can help!

What's fair when it comes to flexible working?

A team member wants to leave the office at 4pm every day to pick up his twins from nursery. Another asks to work from home one day a week because of her family schedule. Both are great team players, and so you cut them some slack and say yes to their requests.

But then, an employee tells you in confidence that people in her team are grumbling. They wonder why the young parents have privileges in this regard - what do you offer to those without kids? After all, it’s people’s personal choice to have a family, so why do they get better working conditions than others? One guy mentioned that he would also like to work from home on Fridays because his football team starts playing at 5pm, and they train close to home…

Here’s a couple of thoughts on how to slither through this thicket without damaging the shrubbery:

It’s a fact of life, these days

For better or worse, people expect more flexibility from their employer these days than 20 years ago. And if your policies are too rigid, you risk losing great people, because great people have many options. So just make sure you take this fact into account as you formulate your policy.

Be consistent and minimise exceptions

Having a policy that you apply consistently will spare you a lot of headaches. Yes, it’s tempting to treat each case individually, but you might be slowly building a hornet’s nest of resentment where the most assertive ones get their way and the others feel betrayed.

One such possible policy version could be:

  • There is no working-from-home
  • Core working hours in the office are 9am - 6pm
  • Those with children or other dependents (e.g. elderly parents) can work flexibly but
    • need to bring in the same amount of weekly hours (i.e. catch up on work on evenings and weekends)
    • need to be in the office from 10am - 4pm

That is just one version of a policy, and it’s a relatively strict one. On the other side of the spectrum, you could have an open door policy like some startups do where people can come and go as they wish, as long as they can be reached online. That’s fine, too!

We just recommend to have a set of standards that always apply so that you have to make as few exceptions as possible.

Yes, you may disappoint people who have reasonable requests. But you probably want to avoid a slippery slope. It’s better to disappoint someone because the rules apply than to set up rules that get bent at the first occasion.

Consider other dependents

We addressed it above briefly - but it’s worth restating. Someone who has a disabled partner or a frail parent has a good point when asking for equal rights with young parents. Consider expanding the concept of “children” to “dependents”. Do you take the view that pets are also a responsibility that demand more flexibility? It’s not an unusual request.

Communicate - both ways

Whether or not you have a written policy on this subject, it’s important to communicate. It would be risky to give a “no comment” type answer when A challenges your decision to allow B to work from home.

The onus of communication is also on the employee: When someone asks for an office window from 10am to 4pm, they should proactively tell you when and how they will recover those remaining three hours of the day. Try to raise this awareness with your people managers.

It’s definitely not an easy question. Ideally, you want to build a culture of trust and team spirit where no one would even dream of free riding or taking undeserved privileges. We know of a team where one young mother comes in after 10am every day and no one bats an eyelid because she’s a great team player and gets her work done superbly.

To paraphrase Peter Drucker, Culture eats Policy for breakfast.