The future of flexible working

With employees increasingly working outside of the traditional 9 to 5, David Greenhalgh asks whether employers need to rethink their own definitions of flexible working

The flexible working phenomenon is evolving. Originally an option for parents or carers needing to adapt their working lives around their caring responsibilities, it has now become far broader than employers may even realise, with people seeking to work according to their preferences, rather than their needs.

While there isn’t a legal definition of flexible working, the umbrella term can cover all manner of working outside the office, including from home, a co-working space or other location, hot-desking, and even logging on outside of designated working hours. According to a recent report from the University of the West of England, 54 per cent of rail passengers use the onboard wifi to send work emails during their commute.

Preventing ‘flexism’

In legal terms, employees have a statutory right to put in a formal flexible working request after 26 weeks’ service, and can put in requests of this nature every 12 months. The risk with these more formal requests is that employees can feel anxious about the process – particularly when it comes to the possibility of having the requests rejected. In fact, research by Quinyx found that 16 per cent of employees felt their manager would react badly to a request for a more flexible working schedule, with a further 15 per cent concerned that it could negatively impact their career progression.

On the other side of the coin, even those who have had their flexible working requests accommodated can feel that there are negative consequences. Indeed, a survey by flexible working experts Timewise found that two-thirds of part-time workers feel isolated and struggle to make professional connections; 65 per cent feel less connected to their own teams and nearly seven in 10 (68 per cent) accept compromises to their own career because they feel so grateful to have had their request accepted.

Each of these figures should ring alarm bells for employers who wish to encourage flexible working in their team, as it is clear that employees who wish to work more flexibly are feeling discouraged from doing so – and that responsibility lies with the employer to fix. So what can be done?

Fostering a flexible culture

One in 10 employees in the UK are already on some form of flexible working contract, and with this number only set to rise, employers need to be able to accommodate the increasingly flexible workforce.

Instead of relying on formal requests, businesses need to encourage a more flexible culture. This can include working-from-home initiatives, flexi-time or introducing a hot-desking option to make time in the office more agile. Technology can be a help here, too. Particularly for desk-based roles, a lot of work can be done anywhere, as long as there is access to a phone and an internet connection.

However, with increased flexible working comes the need for stricter policies. Employees who undertake a more flexible approach to work can find it difficult to prevent the lines between work and home-life blurring, and as such will often reply to emails or make calls outside of contracted hours. To make this clear, employers should have policies in place to demonstrate if and when this is expected, if at all, to ensure employees are not at risk of increased stress.

The working world is changing. Employees are increasingly becoming aware of how, where and when they can work most effectively, and want to change their working lives to suit this. As such, employers need to adapt and put policies in place to foster a more flexible working culture now, to meet the demands of employees in the future.

David Greenhalgh is an employment partner at Joelson