SMEs need more support to implement a fully flexible culture

by Mandy Garner

A recent survey by found that most employers recognise the increasing demand for flexible working, but 42% would like more support to cope with it.

The survey of around 200 employers showed they believe demand is coming from all groups within society, not just parents, and that it is set to continue. 31% say they are already getting more dads asking for flexible working, 20% are getting more older workers and 29% are getting more non-parents.

The 42% figure is particularly interesting in light of current policy discussions about flexible working which tend to focus on forcing employers to flex more by advertising jobs that are flexible from day one and enforcing employees’ flexible working rights.

Many of the employers in the survey are keen to become more flexible from day one and recognise the business benefits in terms of talent attraction. Many are making clear in their job adverts that they support flexible working. 62% already mention that they are open to flexible working in their job adverts and 71% say they intend to do so in the future.

But it is not enough just to advertise jobs as flexible or to respond to ad hoc requests for flexibility. What is needed is a more strategic review of how organisations work, particularly those with entrenched cultures, including a rethink of how different roles work and the implications for management.

Different patterns of working

Much has been made of the need for employers to move towards a style of management which is less about presenteeism and more about results, but the reality of changing traditional patterns of working and thinking about jobs is a harder challenge.

Small start-ups may be able to exploit their agility and their ability to adapt to the needs of individual workers but may have trouble maintaining that as they scale up and as personal agreements become more rigid policies. However, larger, older SMEs face a different set of issues.

A previous’s survey of employers found medium-sized companies to be the least likely to consider themselves to have a flexible culture. Compared to larger or smaller employers, they were also more likely to adopt a more limited range of flexible working styles, mainly part-time working or flexible hours.

One of the big obstacles they faced was line manager attitudes, including concerns about setting precedents, managing workloads of other members of teams where employees wanted reduced hours, communicating policies to clients and managing expectations.

In many larger companies with HR teams, there are the resources to, for instance, tackle line manager issues through developing toolkits, offering training sessions or doing pilots to show sceptical managers the benefits of a flexible approach.

Best practice

So how can SMEs get the support they need in the absence of HR resources? One way is through learning about what other employers are doing.’s Top Employer Awards and employer roundtables aim to highlight best practice in flexible working among other issues. Roundtables include employers of all sizes and at all stages of the move towards a more flexible culture. 

They are a forum for employers to talk about the challenges they face, but also to learn what others are doing and get ideas that they might adopt or tweak in their own organisation.

Previous SME winners of the Top Employer Awards include IT firm Hireserve. While Hireserve is a relatively small SME how it has gone about building a flexible work culture is instructive. 

There is a big emphasis on in-depth strategic planning to ensure there is always cover even if members of staff are working different patterns, to think ahead about staffing needs and to be prepared to review job structures and fit them to the talent, skills and experience available. 

For instance, if a manager wants to work part-time, there is a willingness to think about how parts of their jobs might be hived off to a more junior member of staff, enabling them to stretch and giving them a more challenging, interesting role.

It’s a complicated jigsaw and requires a certain way of thinking that many managers are not accustomed to, given most managers learn on the job based on how things have always been.

Another example is digital marketing and publishing company Genie Ventures, which has been growing fast and now has 60 employees, mainly based in Cambridge. 

The business takes a long-term approach to recruitment, hiring people who are at the start of their digital marketing career. It has a very strong training programme,  the Genie Academy, which includes a wide variety of technical training. Training is also offered on an ongoing basis to all members of staff and career development is one of the fundamental pillars of the business.

Genie Ventures also offers training for managers, which includes an understanding of the importance of equality and flexible working. Flexibility helps it to operate across different time zones and communication between members of staff is crucial to maintaining a strong identity and a culture of openness and trust.

While it is easier to instil greater flexibility in newer industries and organisations, has seen many employers who have been able to turn around established ways of working. 

An ongoing challenge

What is clear, though, is that it is not enough to do one-off initiatives to promote agile working. Flexibility is something that needs to be reviewed, promoted, measured and challenged on a continuous basis to ensure things don’t slip back to what they used to be. 

Each organisation will have its own quirks and challenges and will have to find its own way.  Changes in the structure of an organisation may be needed, for instance, to give greater powers to HR and to measure and reward managers for coordinating successful flexible and diverse teams as managing flexible and diverse teams, often on multiple time scales, becomes more central to business success.

At’s most recent Top Employer Awards HR expert Caroline Waters, Deputy Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said rapid changes in the workforce and business needs require a new category of professional who understands the psychology of collaboration and how to build an environment that increases productivity.

We live in turbulent times and carrying on as normal is no longer a sound business plan. Flexibility is no longer an add-on, but a core requirement.

Mandy Garner is managing editor of and, a new website for workers who are over 50.

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