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Introduction to flexible working

Achieving greater flexibility at work can seem like a daunting task but it is an essential step in creating happy veterinary teams

12 May 2021, at 2:00pm

Flexible working means something different to all of us. Whether it is to enable participation in hobbies, other activities or family responsibilities, our time is precious and it is vital that we can meet those needs. Across many industries, working patterns are evolving to meet the needs of both employees and employers. Despite the common belief that it is mostly millennials who want to work flexibly, it is the over-40s, and not millennials, who are working more flexibly in their veterinary careers (Flexee, 2020). Whilst other industries have welcomed flexible working, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a real catalyst for change in the veterinary industry.

So, what is flexible working? Veterinary clinics have had to adapt rapidly during the pandemic. There has been a sizable shift in how both employers and employees have experienced new ways of working and as a result our workplaces will not look the same again. For example, some employers have split their workforces into teams, whilst employees have worked a variety of shifts, together with different means of remote consulting – options that traditional working patterns often do not allow. These skills will form part of your clinic’s future flexible toolkit.

This article will look at why flexible working is increasingly important and the opportunities and threats that flexible working presents to employers and employees. We will also look at what data analysis from the past six months can tell us about integrating flexible working solutions into veterinary practices so that it works for everyone.

Why is flexible working important?

Many people in our industry would choose not to revert back to their pre-COVID work pattern (Flexee, 2020). Of 500 respondents (333 complete responses), more than one third of employers attribute high or very high priority to adopting flexible working practices. Whilst almost 50 percent of vets want to work more flexibly, over 50 percent find it difficult to arrange (Vet Futures, 2015). Workload and flexibility are now one of the seven pillars of the BVA good veterinary workplaces policy (BVA, 2020).

The key advantages of flexible working are promoting mental and physical health and well-being, and promoting equality, diversity and inclusion. Greater flexibility in our workplaces enables staff members to achieve the work–life integration that they need. Hagen et al. (2020), investigating recruitment and retention of vets, showed that work–life balance (41.2 percent) was the most common reason that 536 vets planned to leave their job. Employees are more likely to stay with an employer who offers flexible working (64 percent) because it makes them happier and better able to manage responsibilities outside of work. Whilst “childcare flexibility” is a commonly perceived reason for requesting flexibility, statistically it is in sixth place according to Aviva (2017).

Flexible working is key in achieving top business priorities. Recruitment of one new vet costs approximately £15,000 (Nicol, 2012). High staff turnover is an expensive, unsustainable business model. Half of employers (51 percent) agree that flexible working increases productivity and loyalty; 54 percent seek this benefit in new roles (Aviva, 2017). Clearly this incentive attracts, retains and progresses talent. Examples of companies who have successfully implemented flexible working in the UK include Christie NHS Foundation Trust (Timewise, 2021a) and Google (Timewise, 2021b).

Considering barriers to flexible working, fairness is a common concern (Flexee, 2020). Fairness requires transparency about the ways in which individuals work and an effective method of recording hours. A very small proportion of employees report that flexible working creates conflict between those who want the same time off and creates tension when there is a perception of workload imbalance; however, 21 percent of employees would never ask their boss for flexibility as they are fearful of even making an initial request (Aviva, 2017). So, be proactive and encourage positive conversations (Campbell, 2020).

How can we make better use of flexible working in the veterinary profession?

Achieving greater flexibility at work can seem like a daunting task but it is an essential step in creating happy veterinary teams. There are many ways to approach this and flexibility will look different in each practice. We know that other industries share this common ground and have successfully implemented flexible working strategies. What methods have you tested and what do you already know? The first step is to create a roadmap, but be prepared to make adjustments. Not only will flexible working improve staff mental health and well-being, but it will attract and retain valuable talent and support the business bottom line. One thing is certain: “we mustn’t let the challenges of hybrid working prevent a more flexible future” (Timewise, 2020). After all, even flexible working needs structure and management.