We need to make flexible working work for everyone

Allowing employees to move away from the nine-to-five won’t make sense for organisations until they truly embrace it, argues Kate Cooper

Since publishing Flexible working: Goodbye nine to five, The Institute of Leadership & Management has emphasised the benefits of flexible working. For employers it widens the talent pool, cuts down on office space, allows for longer working hours and is an increasingly important non-financial benefit. For employees, flexible working might mean a reduction in commuting time, more control over the working day and an important factor in managing work-life balance. 

Calls for flexible working so often come from parent interest groups, and of course these are very important voices. But the debate is actually bigger than that; it’s more than combining caring responsibilities for children or older relatives with work. What we’re talking about is the idea of being trusted to deliver a certain amount of work – or a particular service – to a high standard within acceptable timeframes. A willingness and ability to do so is very much the behaviour of a fully engaged employee who cares about what they’re doing. If the quid pro quo for that is the scope to manage your life around that central premise, then it puts a different complexion on flexible working.

But flexible working shouldn’t be a zero-sum game, with winners meaning there have to be losers. If some people’s desire to work flexibly is driven by stringent requirements to ensure that their holidays coincide with school breaks, or that they can always finish at 3pm – which are the sorts of things that a lot of parental groups are calling for – then other people in the organisation will have to pick up the slack. So until we see flexible working in the round – as something that hinges upon co-dependencies between staff, and the ability of organisations to provide appropriate coverage for workloads – it will continue to produce sticking points.

Although the TUC’s Frances O’Grady has recently claimed that flexible working helps employees to be happier and more productive, we need a strong evidence base for such a claim because, as with so many workplace initiatives or changes in working methods, if there’s a firm business case for it, then it’s much easier to make it happen. It’s also far more likely that it will happen. The real supporters of flexible working are those who are able to see that it has to make sense for everyone concerned, so that organisations have the resources to meet their commitments to customers.

Recent research from Fidelity International, The Modern Life Report, found that almost half (46 per cent) of people in their 20s have a ‘side hustle’; ie, a second source of income. This is indicative of the blurring between work and leisure that advances in technology and increased patterns of flexible working facilitate, but also suggests that a single source of income might become less and less the norm. Enlightened flexible working practices, such as a shorter working week, help individuals who want to earn a second income, perhaps even being paid for a leisure pastime they particularly enjoy. 

Flexible working should not be a single-issue solution; as the length of working lives increases, the number of years when the school term is important decreases. As different sorts of employment contracts become commonplace, rather than concerning ourselves with why the flexible working request is being made, let us look at the myriad of benefits that such policies may deliver and ensure our workforces are ready to embrace the new ways of working that 21st century organisations require.  

Kate Cooper is head of research, policy and standards at The Institute of Leadership & Management