Many workers are missing out on the benefits of flexible working arrangements during the pandemic despite the increase in home working, as take-up for flexi-time and part-time working has dropped, according to CIPD analysis of official figures.
Analysis of the Office for National Statistics’s Labour Force Survey of 74,832 people from October to December 2020 indicated a decline in the use of all types of flexible hours arrangements, such as part-time, flexi-time and annualised hours.
Between April and June 2020 and October and December 2020, the use of part-time working fell from 28.3 per cent to 27.6 per cent, and take-up of flexi-time dropped one percentage point to 12.6 per cent.
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These figures contrasted those for home working, which increased from 7.8 per cent to 10.1 per cent during the same period, and almost doubled from 5.3 per cent to 10.1 per cent between the last quarter of 2020 and January-March 2021.
The data also highlighted unmet demand for flexible working, with 9.3 per cent of workers polled saying they would prefer to work shorter hours and accept the associated pay cut.
The CIPD is urging employers to take more action to ensure people who are unable to work from home can benefit from other flexible working options, and assist home workers in balancing other commitments such as homeschooling, childcare or other caring responsibilities.
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Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, said that while the shift to home working has been largely positive for many people, the decline in other forms of flexible working could prompt questions around fairness and equality for those who cannot work from home.
“Home working must not be the only flexible working arrangement available, and employers should take action to offer and encourage the uptake of a broad range of options that give opportunities for everyone to have more choice and flexibility in how they work,” said Cheese.
“More flexible working in all its forms helps to attract and retain people with a broad diversity of needs and expectations about how they work, thereby fostering more diverse and inclusive workplaces. It can also be good for wellbeing and productivity.”
The decline of flexible working take-up also risked creating a ‘two tier’ workforce of those who can work from home and those who need to attend a workplace and have little flexibility.
Emma Stewart, director of development at flexible working consultancy Timewise, raised concerns that part-time working and control of hours are the forgotten forms of flex in the pandemic, and that divides in the workforce will deepen.
“The flexible working revolution cannot just be for autonomous, office-based workers,” she said. “Nurses, delivery drivers, teachers and all those in everyday jobs need a better work-life balance too. As we redesign work, we have to do it in a fair and equitable way.”
Dr Zofia Bajorek, senior research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies, said questions should be asked on how flexible working will be managed fairly so one employee doesn’t benefit over another. “Questions should be asked about how this will be managed fairly, so that one person’s flexibility doesn’t have implications for the workload of others in the team,” she said.
“Even before the pandemic there was evidence that potential employees were favouring employing flexibility over salary when applying for jobs, and so not offering employee flexibility could hamper recruitment and selection in the future. But organisations should be wary that, if organisations are offering increased flexibility to new recruits, then this should be rolled out to current employees too.”
Meanwhile, the government has launched a flexible working taskforce – co-chaired by Cheese – to enable new ways of flexible working post pandemic. It is considering whether employment contracts going forward should allow more ad hoc, hybrid working in locations outside of the physical workplace, such as only coming into the office occasionally or working in cafes, so employees have a safe place to work.
Similarly to the CIPD’s #FlexFrom1st campaign, the taskforce may recommend that new employees should be able to apply for flexible working immediately upon commencing their employment, instead of waiting 26 weeks, as is the current law.