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Flexible working - what is it and why should we be paying attention?

Posted on 11/04/2019 by Gary Fay

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What is flexible working? You might think the answer is obvious - employees working from home, the chance to choose working hours, perhaps even the offer of a career break for travelling. But there’s more to it than meets the eye.

As the war for talent continues to rage, employers are under more pressure than ever to provide working conditions that suit their employees, not the other way round. And this means looking holistically at the entire employee experience.

So, with that in mind, how do we define flexible working in 2019, and what are the key benefits of truly flexible working structures?

What is flexible working?

Natalie Pancheri, HR Policy Adviser at the London School of Economics, describes flexible working as: “recognising that individuals have different needs both inside and outside of work,” which is certainly a major aspect of it. But recognition is only one part of it. A better definition of flexible working means giving your employees some agency over where, when, and (perhaps most crucially) how they work.

What this means in practice depends on your company. Each business and its workforce is unique, so it's important to try and tailor your work environment to your workforce’s best way of working as much as possible. Any flexible working strategy needs to be well thought through, heavily strategised and regularly reviewed. Whatever the definition, it’s a practice with significant benefits. Research from Canada Life Group Insurance found that 77% of employees felt flexible working aided productivity. So what are the key options for implementing a flexible work environment?

  • Flexible working hours - According to a 2017 FlexJobs survey, only 7% of workers actually feel productive between 9am and 5pm. Giving people the power to decide when they’re best placed to get the work done is incredibly freeing. It also gives families the time to organise childcare, care for relatives, whatever they need to do. Flexible working hours can mean anything from giving employees the chance to work late on a Monday and leave early on a Friday, to only working a few months in a year. It depends not only on the job, but on the individual, and that’s exactly what flexible working is all about - valuing the individual.
  • Home working - Richard Branson is notorious for allowing salaried staffers to take lots of vacation time, but he’s also a strong proponent of allowing his team members to work from wherever they feel most comfortable. He explains: “We like to give people the freedom to work where they want, safe in the knowledge that they have the drive and expertise to perform excellently, whether they are at their desk or in their kitchen.”

Thanks to changing attitudes and better IT capabilities, the number of UK workers moving into remote working has increased by almost a quarter over the last decade and is expected to hit 50% by 2020 according to the ONS. Canada Life Group found that almost half (46%) of the employees surveyed that worked from home said that they were not in any way stressed or anxious about work, compared to 18% that work in cubicles and 27% that work in open plan offices. Not only that, according to one survey by the AfterCollege career network, 68% of Millennials would be more interested in a specific employer that offered the option to work remotely. So if you want to attract future talent, home working has to be on the table.

  • Career breaks43% of highly-qualified women with children choose to take career breaks, according to the Harvard Business Review, but careers breaks can be a huge value-add for all employees. Taking time out to look after infant children or elderly relatives is undoubtedly the most common reason for a career break, but giving staff the option to have a break to go travelling, spend time with their families or focus on a specific area of their studies, for example, could be the ace up your sleeve if you’re looking to acquire the right candidates.
  • Job sharing - Flexible working can also mean higher income earners spending less time at work to focus on their personal lives, which is particularly handy for senior talent who might need the time to raise their family or care for elderly relatives. This is where the potential for job sharing really comes into play. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), there are 8.5 million people in part-time employment, with job sharers included in those statistics, and various surveys have suggested that higher earners are more actively seeking these arrangements. A study by Timewise, for example, revealed that the number of people working part-time in higher income jobs in the UK had risen more than 10% between 2017 and 2018 to 849,000.
  • Secondment opportunities - Secondment opportunities are another avenue of flexibility you might want to consider bringing to the table. Whether internal or external secondment, it can be incredibly worthwhile in terms of not only giving employees a little more perspective on the business and the sector, but in helping them learn new skills that they can transfer to their primary role. Secondments are primarily offered to provide career development opportunities, but can also open up entirely new avenues for employees who might otherwise be feeling stuck in a rut.
  • Career paths - Accountancy giant PwC launched a scheme last year - the “Flexible Talent Network” - that not only allows applicants to list their preferred work patterns but also their unique skills, with the idea being that jobs are essentially created around them. PwC's chief people officer, Laura Hinton, said: “People assume that to work at a big firm they need to follow traditional working patterns - we want to make it clear that this isn't the case. In order to recruit the best people, we recognise that we need to offer greater flexibility, different working options and a route back in for those looking to restart their careers.”

There are challenges that come with flexible working practices, of course. One is company culture, ensuring that employees don’t feel isolated from the business and are still part of the team. But even that worry is overemphasised.

It might sound counterintuitive, but many remote workers actually feel more engaged with their colleagues and supervisors than workers in the office, according to the Harvard Business Review. This is primarily down to the plethora of tech tools now at the disposal of the average company, with 87% of remote workers feeling more connected to the office when using tools such as video conferencing.

More concerning is the challenge for employees. Flexible recruitment specialists, Timewise, found that 30% of flexible workers felt they were regarded as less important than their office-based counterparts, and 25% said they were given fewer opportunities than colleagues who worked conventional hours. A quarter also believed they had missed out on promotion. With a flexible working revolution well underway, employees need to be acutely aware of potential biases relating to flexible working practices, and put checks in place to ensure everyone gets the same deal.

Evolve or die

Despite some drawbacks and grumbles of discontent, the demand for flexibility shows no sign of slowing. In fact, the Timewise survey estimated that 8.7 million UK-based full-time workers want to work flexibly, whether part-time or more remotely. This demand needs to be met with supply for businesses wanting to attract and maintain top talent both today and in the future.

Emer Timmons, chief marketing officer at Brightstar, believes: “This is one of those evolve-or-die moments for many businesses. The Millennial generation has demonstrated a willingness to vote with their feet when they encounter technology, working practices or both that don’t meet their expectations.”

Evolve or die might sound dramatic, but it’s true that businesses without a flexible working policy, in whatever capacity, will be less appealing to future employees. Get flexibility right, and the benefits can be great. Stay rigid, and you may see growth stall in the long run.