By now it’s a familiar term, but do we know what flexible working really means in 2019?
Although the term ‘flexible working’ is not a new one, it’s not always exactly clear what it means.
Does it refer to part-time work? Is it a choice of what time to start the working day, or the ability to work from home?
The answer, of course, is all of the above and more.
Working patterns are changing.
Referring to ‘flexible work’ covers a broad range of working styles and practices, but it’s often simply thought of as ‘not 9-5’.
So what are the benefits – and the challenges – that come with working flexibly?
The new normal
As the International Workplace Group (IWG) found in their 2019 annual global workplace survey, 73% of people believe that flexible working is the new normal (1).
Not only that, but the same survey came back with the astonishing statistic that 80% of people would turn down a job that didn’t offer flexible work (2).
With that in mind, businesses are likely to benefit from scrutinising their flexible work offerings to both attract and retain talent.
The CIPD, the professional body for Human Resources professionals, pointed out in its recent ‘Megatrends: flexible working’ report that some data might not even cover the true extent of flexible work.
Given that remote work is increasingly easier as tech develops, informal flexible work is possible for many employees, a work pattern which may go unrecorded (3).
The right to choose
The ability to work flexibly is more important for some employees than others, but at certain points in life, it can be vital.
The CIPD references six types of flexible work arrangements – flexitime, job-sharing, reduced working hours, compressed working week, working from home, and term-time work.
In addition, says the CIPD, a quarter of people work part-time (4).
Women with children were the most likely demographic to have taken up at least one of the flexible working options available to them.
More than 40% of women with children said that they have worked from home, compared with over 30% of women without children.
Just under 30% of men without children, and a little over 35% of men with children, said that they have worked from home at some point (5).
At the moment, under UK law, a worker has the right to submit a request for flexible working if they’ve been an employee, continuously, for at least 26 weeks on the date they make their application.
It could still be refused, but if agreed, it would mean a permanent change in contract – with no loss of salary, employee benefits, holiday or pension (6).
The Labour Party’s equalities spokesperson, Dawn Butler, said they would create “a presumption in favour of flexible working”, in an effort that would be “essential to closing the gender pay gap and dismantling the structural barriers that hold women back from promotion and progression (7).”
The challenges of flexible working
In its ‘Part-time work: the exclusion zone?’ report, the flexible working consultancy firm Timewise found some significant problems in implementing the practice, with company culture cited as a problem.
A huge number of flexible workers reported feeling left out of office life – 65% felt less connected to their team, and 61% less up-to-date with team developments (8).
Even more worryingly, 45% of respondents believed that they were valued less highly as employees purely because they work part-time.
A perception of being less committed, not a full member of the team, or being less involved, has led to 56% feeling left out (9).
This adds a huge burden to employees who need to work flexibly, and who have the statutory right to ask for it, but who feel they then need to double their efforts at work to be fairly valued.
The problem may lie, as Timewise found, in the fact that 68% of respondents felt so grateful to be allowed to work part-time that they accepted career compromises as fair or inevitable (10).
As the report says: “This may be partly due to the fact that part-time work is still seen in some organisations as a deviation from the norm, or as special treatment that has to be earned (11).”
What employers can do
Sometimes, businesses can see the overall benefits of incorporating flexible work, but stumble at the reality of it.
The biggest obstacle for some businesses can be changing a long-standing, non-flexible working culture at their company.
The CIPD reported: “Most employers, when asked, see benefits to flexible working, such as an improvement in organisational commitment.
But systematic reviews of the evidence reach more mixed, or nuanced, conclusions.
“How flexible working practices are implemented, and the context in which they’re introduced, affects their impact on businesses12.”
The profile of flexible working has never been higher, and demand from employees is only likely to increase in the future.
To be seen as a progressive, attractive business, employers should be looking into employee-friendly policies.
Organisations may understandably have concerns about implementing such a potentially far-reaching, company-wide change.
However, understanding the challenges that may come with it, such as inclusivity for those working remotely, or the unpredictable nature of childcare and eldercare, can help guide thinking and strategy.
For more information and insights into what workers are likely to want from their employer - including flexible working, and how to meet those needs, see our Future Workforce Report.
1,2 IWG. (2019). Global Workplace Survey, p2-9
3,4,5,12 CIPD. (2019). Megatrends: Flexible Working, p2-16
6 Citizen’s Advice Bureau. (2019). Flexible working – what is it
7 BBC News (22 February 2019). Flexible working: Labour pledges new employee rights
8,9,10,11 Timewise. (2018). Part-time work: the exclusion zone?, p3-10