The flexible friends who do a grand job

Jez Abbott
Monday, September 26, 2016

"I contacted these guys about some varsity jackets,” reads one client testimonial on the Custom Planet website. “They responded within the hour. I made payment on a Friday for 25 embroidered jackets and had them at my house by the following Thursday, which to my eyes is amazing.”

The specialist in custom clothing and promotional products introduced flexitime six months ago and in the eyes of business development director John Armstrong, it has been a big contributor to what that satisfied customer concluded was an “awesome service”.

More companies are offering flexitime arrangements for their employees, enabling staff to choose their work hours instead of adhering to a traditional 9 to 5 schedule. Adopting flexitime arrangements, reckons Armstrong, can help you attract new talent and keep them. It can make the whole team more productive, but “is not for everybody and is a challenge to implement”.

The challenge

“The main reason for introducing flexitime was twofold,” explains Armstrong, who co-founded the printwear company in the north east of England eight years ago while at university with Andrew Dark. “The first was to be able to take on a job dropped on us for next-day delivery. 

“The flip side was to protect our staff: if someone wants to be away by 4pm tonight, as long as it’s been pre-planned and booked there is no issue because the shift is covered by someone else. We used to work standard  9 to 5 contracts and pay overtime, which we still do. But it was very much voluntary. If a job ran  over it could cause problems  choosing who stayed.

“So we sat down with the staff and asked what they wanted in terms of the working week. We then told them what we wanted from them and came to a middle-ground compromise with a contract flexible enough to accommodate individuals’ circumstances but meet our needs.”

Some staff, he adds, want to start early and finish early. Others need to do the school run so parents may opt to work from 10am to 3pm while their children are at school and make up the rest of an eight-hour day after the kids are in bed or first thing in the morning. As long as it’s scheduled and planned in advance it shouldn’t be a problem.

The method 

Armstrong used an independent HR consultant to talk the company through the employment law issues and to draw up a new contract, which cost around £1,000. He then embarked on face-to-face chats with each member of staff to spell out what the options were. The new deal is a 40-hour week with, in theory and if necessary, up to eight hours of paid overtime. Each individual agrees and books their hours of work with the company’s production manager.

On the shopfloor, the flexitime schedule is often anchored to equipment capacity: if one of the company’s Barudan embroidery machines or Epson DTG t-shirt printers, for example, is booked for 48 hours of work in a week, the operators can choose how to make up those hours.

“They might decide to work 12-hour days for four days and have the Friday off, or they may opt to run it for eight hours across six days. The only qualm the staff had was being contracted for 48 instead of 40 hours. But when we spelled out they might be working longer hours but they can choose which hours they worked, most of them felt it gave them more control, not less.

“I think staff see flexitime as a benefit. Empowering your team to choose and work their own hours is a sign of respect and an absence of micromanagement, which in turn makes them happier in the workplace, creates company loyalty and improves flexibility.

“We were adamant this was not going to be a ‘take-it-or-leave-the-company” situation, which would have been totally unfair. Those unhappy about working 48 instead of 40 hours came round when we explained it was intended to meet people’s changing needs. We said if they were not happy, that was fine: we would find another solution.”

The result

Preparing to move to flexitime contracts took three months and started on the first day of a new pay month. The key to flexitime at Custom Planet is the production schedule, which is booked well in advance, with capacity built in to take those all-important late jobs that Armstrong was so keen not to turn away. Overtime is offered on a “who-would-like-to-do-it” basis, says Armstrong.

“If no one wants to do it, it would come down to the short-straw scenario. But if person ‘A’ has to do it one week, that member of staff is excluded next time overtime cover is needed. Fortunately we haven’t had that situation yet, but I’m sure at some point it may happen.

“And, of course, not everyone wants flexitime. One of our office-based employee’s personal circumstances means the 9 to 5 working week is better for him and he was  not happy with the new contract. This was fine; he is on the same  contract that he was on before.”

Some of the production staff do work 48 hours, but to date this has been out of choice and it tends to be the same two or three members of staff who want to notch up the 48 hours. Apart from the occasional grumble, which Armstrong is expecting in future about whether it is necessary to work overtime, the only other problem is the drawing up of the production schedule.

“This is a bit of a challenge, requiring frequent tweaking and extra work for the production manager. When your team is working different hours and possibly different days of the week, it makes it trickier to organise work schedules. The production manager speaks to the team a week or two in advance and asks if there are times people need to be away.

“The upside is that when it all comes together it makes work run much more smoothly. Flexitime has to be planned to an absolute tee, which is positive because it maximises production efficiency. I’m not saying this is a perfect scenario – if we are snowed under with work, people do need to work the 48 hours.

“Two weeks ago myself, the other director Andy and our apprentice had to run a 12-hour screen printing shift on a Saturday. Personally I would have preferred to be watching football, but we had accepted the job, it was a one-off situation and it was an important sign to the rest of the team and to customers, we will step in and do the work when needed.”

Switching to flexitime has not  had a big impact on salary costs. The people who did overtime before  are still doing overtime and if staff are clocking up 48-hour working weeks, more power to them and the company – the work is rolling in to fill  up the capacity of all those machines, he says.

The company is, however, more productive, says Armstrong: “I think flexitime has spurred people on to crack on with the work they have chosen to do it because they want to be away early next day, or whenever. It took us quite a while to get to a point where people wanted to take more control over their working hours and saw it as a forward move. It’s working well.” 


Custom Planet 

Location Killingworth, Newcastle upon Tyne 

Inspection host John Armstrong  

Size Turnover: £1.1m; Staff: 12 

Established 2008

Products Embroidered workwear, events and sporting bags and garments such as t-shirts, hoodies, aprons and polo shirts for clients including councils, universities, hotels and companies  such as Proctor & Gamble, Endemol UK and  Grainger Games.  

Kit Three Barudan embroidery machines, three M&R screen printers – a Diamondback, a Sportsman and a manual model – a Mimaki CJV30 60 digital printer, Epson DTG t-shirt printers, Adkins’ heat presses and a purpose-built flatbed vacuum table. 

Inspection focus Introducing flexitime working


  • Think of your staff’s personal needs maintaining employee morale requires clear communication, clearly defined outcomes and inch-perfect scheduling
  • Consider your client’s needs if they regularly need last-minute work, implementing flexitime for  staff makes good sense,  reckons Armstrong
  • Ask the experts employment terms are a legal and HR minefield, so make sure you take advice from experts on the contractual implications of flexitime working
  • Communicate plans widely before rolling out your flexitime policy, run it past not just staff but clients, sub-contractors and others with a stake in the smooth operation of your business
  • Weigh up the flexitime options use the best flexitime options for your staff, from flexible hours to home working and job sharing
  • Think of the challenges flexibility can be challenging, especially in small organisations, so be clear on working hours and have clear, effective HR policies
  • Keep track of hours worked be clear on how staff should track their hours; keeping closer track of hours can help you understand and reduce employee stress,  says Armstrong.


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