Long reads

Why can't everyone work flexibly?

2 Oct 2018 By Hayley Kirton

As the growth in agile working appears to have plateaued, the race is on to help take the concept beyond the office environment

Once upon a time, the working day was a relatively simple concept. You clocked in at 9am, took an hour for lunch and were gone again by 5pm. But times have changed. Near-constant internet access means emails can be checked around the clock, while the rise of portable devices means much (but not all) work is no longer tied to a single location.

As Karen Mattison, co-founder of consultancy Timewise, says: “Nine to five, Monday to Friday – it was designed for a different era, a different workforce and a traditional family structure where one person can do all the working and the other can do all the homing.”

Flexible working is undoubtedly a huge positive for both employers and their staff and has, in just a few years, got onto the agenda of just about every business. But there’s also a concern that the rate of flexible work hasn’t grown significantly for quite a while – and that structural issues may be stalling it.

A YouGov survey, published in August and commissioned by McDonald’s, discovered just 6 per cent of workers are now toiling away for the traditional 9am to 5pm. Two in five (42 per cent) of the 4,000 UK workers questioned said they were working flexibly. 

But this headline figure hasn’t changed much in the past three years and also belies the many problems with quantifying flexible work: people may say they work flexibly when they actually mean their shifts fluctuate according to employer demand, while occasionally working from home is a very different proposition from being predominantly outside the workplace. In fact, according to the TUC, just one in 16 employees worked from home at all in 2017, and the overwhelming majority were managers or senior professionals.

Peter Cheese, CIPD chief executive, points out that the concept of agile working ‘blurs the lines’ even further between flexible work and standard office hours. “It means people can work eight hours but spread it around their childcare, for instance, by going back online in the evenings,” he says. But this is unlikely to be a formal arrangement, and it is unlikely to be available to everyone.

The legalities around flexible working are clear. Since June 2014, employees with at least 26 weeks’ continuous service have the right to request flexible working options. Employers must provide a written response within three months, although they can reject requests for legitimate business reasons. 

There are plenty of negative stories about managers and firms which make flexible workers’ lives impossible. But by and large, most knowledge businesses are on board. “Offering flexibility in how people work throughout the year is not only good for workers, but also for business, the economy and ultimately society,” said Laura Hinton, chief people officer at PwC, as she announced a ‘flexible talent network’ which would help the consultancy find workers without tying them to a full-time contract or standardised hours. 

“We’re likely to see a rise in people transitioning in and out of work throughout their careers, and those organisations who support their people to do this will ultimately gain a competitive advantage.”

The problem is how to take flexible work beyond the places where it is easiest to implement – larger, project-based businesses where employees either work autonomously or in sufficiently flexible teams to avoid the need for a rigid working pattern.

A survey of mid-size UK businesses, commissioned by accountancy firm RSM, revealed around a third (32 per cent) were concerned flexible working would carry IT security risks. Just over a quarter (28 per cent) worried it would have a negative impact on customer service. 

Such concerns can be overcome, but it can be a gargantuan task requiring an entirely new structural approach to rostering in businesses dominated by shift work or where being customer-facing is a practical requirement. In other cases, it may require managers to be more supportive of workers’ personal needs.

A number of supermarkets have been looking at how scheduling software can help them empower staff to choose their own hours. McDonald’s has won plaudits for introducing flexibility to its rostering processes. 

And the NHS, which knows flexibility can help reduce its reliance on agency workers and encourage valuable staff to stay after they become parents, is actively exploring the issue – though Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, acknowledges that the “debate about flexibility in office-style working environments doesn’t always address [employees’] concerns.”

“Many of our people value predictability and they rightly challenge us in the NHS to be more innovative and responsive to their needs,” he adds.

Cheese – who co-chairs the government’s Flexible Working Task Force – concedes there are “some sectors where it is easier than others”, but urges employers to think harder about how they could offer their employees flexible working options. “If I’m running a car plant, a lot of people will say, ‘I can’t possibly work flexibly’. But if you won’t look at the issue, you will find it a lot harder to recruit the  best people in future,” he says. 

Jane van Zyl, CEO of Working Families, echoes this view. She adds that flexibility is important for millennial parents, who are more likely to both work and share childcare. “Employers unable to deliver flexible jobs may find that they are not an employer of choice,” she adds. “It’s more important than ever that employers think outside the 9 to 5 straitjacket and focus on building flexible, agile workforces.”

Of those responding to the McDonald’s-commissioned survey, 70 per cent said they would like to work more flexibly in the future. A similar proportion (69 per cent) said flexible working opportunities would encourage them to stay in a job for longer. 

But Mattison says that while employers have adapted relatively well to flexibility regarding hours worked and location, many still lag behind in part-time opportunities. “If you think about it, it’s usually preceded by an apology: ‘Sorry, I’m only part-time’,” she says of the way part-time workers talk about their contribution.  

Many experts agree that employers could do more to advertise flexible working when posting jobs. Research by Timewise reveals just 11 per cent of jobs paying at least £20,000 full-time equivalent are advertised with flexible working options. 

And Cheese also recommends employers train line managers correctly: “If your line managers aren’t trained, don’t be surprised flexible working requests are getting turned down,” he says. 

Ultimately, however, it may take talent shortages in post-Brexit Britain to swing the balance of power back in favour of employees and enable them to make flexible work a priority. How that will play out in reality is open to debate.

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