This week, Small Business editor Caitlin Sykes talks to business owners about flexible working.

Steve Abley is managing director of Abley Transportation Consultants, which has 38 staff and offices in Christchurch and Auckland.
Can you talk me through how people in your business work flexibly?

Everyone is allowed to work 'flexibly'. Some choose greater flexibility like permanently shorter hours but obviously that comes at an expense of a salary sacrifice. Most people in the team simply appreciate it as the ability to fit day-to-day outside activities into their working week. That could be something simple like visiting the doctor, which is typically a quick thing to do, or taking the afternoon off for a child's sports event and then making the time up anywhere over the next pay period. Those kinds of things don't require anyone's prior approval other than letting us know you'll be out of the office. We don't operate on prescriptive core hours; I personally think they're so 1990s and don't fit with what we're trying to achieve regarding trust and respect among the team. I think most employees would have an understanding of what core hours are, so why do they need to be specified?

So your workplace flexibility relates more to working hours than remote working?

We don't have anyone permanently working from home, but if someone needs to do that, then they do that. It might be that someone's working on something that requires them to be in a quiet headspace, so they'll find being at home or just not on premise a better place to get that task done.


What benefits do you derive as a business from working flexibly in these ways?

We typically empower personal responsibility, and in the vast majority of cases this results in a much more trusting, deeper and longer relationship between the employer and employee. We've found these deeper relationships also provide other benefits. So if we have a particular deliverable due, for example, there's a quid-pro-quo expectation regarding a greater effort in a short space of time to meet the demands of our clients that later enables the shifting of time from one bucket to another. We often talk about the triple-win; flexibility has to be a win for the individual, a win for your teammates and a win for the company.

Being a flexible employer means we also have a much more committed workforce. We have a very low staff turnover, which means we retain a lot of industry knowledge. In our game we'll often do a project for a client and then a further part of that project will come back in a few months' or a few years' time, so that continuity of people is a really important advantage. Flexibility is part of a package of things we do that creates a 'stickiness' with employees.

Do you have policies in place to support these arrangements?

We have official HR policies in place regarding flexible working because we need to clearly set expectations. But we're a small firm and we deal very lightly with policy on this stuff; instead we do it around culture. Ultimately we have a bottom line measure we call the 'don't take the piss' test. It's a measure monitored by the wider team and as a result it's self-enforced based on seeing others' good behaviours. It might seem a bit 'base' for what I think is an exemplary professional services firm, but it's a simple message around trust and it works really well.

What role do your hiring practices play in getting this right?

They're absolutely essential, and we have some good processes in place now around hiring appropriately. We're getting much better at position descriptions and also understanding how our company values fit in with positions and expectations. We have a standard script we go through with prospective employees at the interview stage, and within that we have questions that tease out cultural fit. You could be god's gift to traffic engineering and technically brilliant but if you've got some cultural behaviours we don't think will fit with our team then it's a 'do not pass go' moment.