Employers risk creating 'two-tier' workforce over access to flexible working, CIPD warns

Experts urge businesses to ‘think creatively’ about how to provide flexibility as research reveals large disparities in availability across the UK

The UK is at risk of becoming a two-tier workforce when it comes to who has access to flexibility, the CIPD has warned, with some regions of the country already becoming flexible ‘notspots’.

Analysis by the HR body of the Office for National Statistics’ Labour Force Survey data has found that already some areas of the country have much better access to flexible working than others.

Employees in the south-east of England have the best access to flexible working options, the analysis found, followed by the east of England and Northern Ireland.

In contrast, Yorkshire and the Humber, the East Midlands and Wales respectively had the worst access to flexible working.

The CIPD measured flexibility by looking at where employees were permitted to work, and by looking at how informally flexible working policies were operated, including how start and end times were determined and whether employees were able to take leave on short notice.

The differences between regions reflects the predominance of certain sectors in different parts of the country, the CIPD said, as well as areas with a higher concentration of higher-skilled and higher-paid jobs, which are concentrated in London and the south east. 

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In Yorkshire and the Humber, workers appeared to have little flexibility partly because there are more lower-skilled roles. 

The CIPD is calling on employers to ensure workers have access to flexible working arrangements. 

Chief executive Peter Cheese urged employers to “think creatively” about how they could provide flexibility to workers who needed to be in the physical workplace, and not just those who can work remotely. 

“Having a wide range of flexible options is necessary to support the whole workforce and we want to see an increase in the uptake of all forms of flexible working, regardless of the type of work someone does or the region they’re in,” Cheese said.

He added that different arrangements, including flexi-time, compressed hours or job shares, could not only empower people to have greater control and flexibility over their working life, but would also help organisations foster more diverse and inclusive workplaces.

This was echoed by Dr Anne Sammon, partner at Pinsent Masons, who said flexible working was crucial for enabling workers to balance their work with other obligations.  

“Genuinely flexible work enables women, in particular, to remain in the workplace after having children,” Sammon said, adding that the normalisation of flexible working that happened during lockdown could also have a “positive impact on the ability of men to more equally share those care-giving responsibilities”.

Jane van Zyl, chief executive of Working Families, added that the pandemic has demonstrated that flexibility is possible in more sectors than previously thought. 

“Flexible working has traditionally been associated with office-based roles, leaving big chunks of the workforce and the country without access to flexible, family friendly working options,” said van Zyl.

“But we know that in sectors as diverse as construction and retail, employers are realising the business benefits of flexibility in all roles and are making huge progress.

“We need to send a strong message to businesses that if they want to attract the most talented and diverse group of staff, then advertising jobs as flexible is a must.”