How flexible working can reduce overheads
Allowing employees to work flexible hours can provide a number of benefits to staff wellbeing. Whether it is for childcare, to strike a better work/life balance or to study, flexible working can have a positive impact across an organization.
Furthermore, any practices concerned over their future workload might wish to look at how their staff’s working hours, their business’ capacity and the plans of individual employees relate to each other. With staff salaries being a fixed overhead, making it clear to employees that flexible hours, working part-time, or even taking a sabbatical are all options could result in a more financially resilient business that actually better suits some staff.
Barbara Kaucky is Chair of the RIBA’s Small Practice Group. Her practice, Erect Architecture, offers flexible working hours to all: only one staff member and the two founding directors are full-time. Everyone else uses the extra time to pursue outside interests or teaching responsibilities.
Three- and four-day working has become the norm at the practice. This does involve additional administrative work, and the practice does have to be careful with project programming, but Kaucky says it is all perfectly viable and has no plans to change.
Her practice was affected by the UK recession of 2008 when cuts to public-sector spending had an impact on their workload. The directors quickly realised that the practice had a problem and called a staff meeting to discuss how outgoings could be cut back.
"We asked if anyone had other plans they could pursue," Kaucky explains. "One person left to do a Masters and re-joined the practice later. Another chose to go on sabbatical, travelling, and returned to practice with someone else. But it was a stroke of luck really."
Kaucky describes the practice today as really busy and a happy place to be. Once it put systems in place to rigorously monitor the practice’s finances, they soon proved their worth. The practice tries to look six months ahead but regards its three-month forecasts as more reliable. It also maintains a three-month cash reserve.
She adds that financial monitoring with an eye on taxation prompted the practice to claim for valuable R&D tax credits on a number of projects. This provides the practice a significant cashflow boost.
Were the healthy practice ever to find itself in a difficult financial situation again, it would look at taking a collaborative decision as a team to cut back on remuneration generally. Voluntarily reducing hours is not always going to be an option for people, even if they can afford it. For example, Erect currently has one non-UK staff member where working full-time is a visa requirement of staying here.
Kaucky says that most important thing small practices can do in the current climate is to understand and closely monitor their costs and outgoings, and commit to cash flow forecasting - something she has no doubt many, many small practices are still not doing.
At Stroud-based Millar Howard Workshop, flexible working was brought in two years ago and has been universally welcomed by everyone involved, says director Tomas Millar. He claims it has revolutionised the way the practice works.
The directors found that they were agreeing lots of exceptions to fixed hours for staff with family commitments and long commuting. But they were also aware of large amounts of unpaid overtime that were building up: an unfortunately common phenomenon in architecture.
"We decided to implement a flexible working policy whereby we have core hours, but outside these hours you can be as flexible as you like," Millar explains. "We are also very flexible with staff requesting a reduction in hours to suit their specific needs, whether it’s for childcare or just a reduced working week."
If staff end up working longer to meet a deadline, they can accrue this time as a day off, or perhaps leave early on a Friday. There are some checks and balances to prevent ‘binge working’, such as anyone working excessive hours to gain a week off at a time: there is an absolute maximum 10-hour day rule, and any ‘flexi days’ have to be spent in the month they were earned.
Trust is a very important factor. "Employees feel they are in control of the hours they work and can adapt them to fit around their lives," Millar suggests. "It has helped nurture a trusting relationship. As long as people do their contracted hours, the details of their daily routine are up to them."
Thanks to Barbara Kaucky, Director, Erect Architecture; Tomas Millar, Director, Millar Howard Workshop.
Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas
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Posted on 4 April 2019.