Flexible Working – The 21st Century’s answer to the 9 to 5


7 mins

Posted on 25 Jun 2015

What does the phrase “flexible working” mean to you? Does it conjure up images of people putting the washing on, getting some ironing done, perhaps catching up on Jeremy Kyle while keeping an eye out for the red light flashing on their Blackberry? Anecdotal evidence certainly suggests that employers can be suspicious of employees working from home and feel they won’t get full efficiency from them. 

It’s easy to see how flexible working benefits the employee, but what’s in it for the employer?

Background

The right to request flexible working historically has only applied to parents with young children, and has been typically used by mothers returning to work from maternity leave. Over time the right was extended so that parents of children up to 18 years and those caring for adult carers became eligible. The biggest leap was made in 2014 with a new code of practice from ACAS, the removal of the previously onerous statutory request procedure and, most significantly, widening who can make a request. As of 30 June 2014 the right to make a flexible working request applies to all employees, as long as they have 26 weeks continuous service. 

So, where are we almost one year later?

Current Trends

Recent research conducted by Timewise indicates that although almost half of the British working population wants to work flexibly, only 6% of job adverts paying the full time equivalent of £20,000 or more (a salary deemed high enough to live on) offer flexibility. Separate research by Manpower suggests that the country is facing a “critical shortfall” of skilled workers, with Northern England being the worst affected. Timewise chief executive, Karen Mattison, said employers are not considering the benefits of technological advances that have led to a “revolution” in the workplace and how these can be capitalised upon by updating working practices. She states:

Businesses are missing out, as they consistently fail to realise just how important flexibility is to people looking for a new role. This often results in the best talent having to trade down, and take jobs way beneath their level of skill and ability”.

A study conducted last year by Citrix and the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) found that 96% of the knowledge worker population who are given the option to work flexibly, do. The report also stated that 60% of part-time workers who responded would be inclined to work more hours if given the opportunity to work remotely. Across the UK population, this is equivalent to 745,000 part-time workers who would like to work remotely. 

What does Flexibility have to offer?

The benefits to the employee are obvious, and widely promoted by organisations like Mind, the mental health charity. Mind applauded the changes to the right to request flexible working, stating that around 1 in 6 workers experience stress, anxiety or depression and “flexible working helps employees to manage their work-life balance which is good for their mental wellbeing.” 

Enabling employees to work flexibly increases morale, commitment and widens the scope for recruiting the best skilled individual for a role. On top of this, the Citrix and CEBR study found that allowing employees to work from home could save UK workers £7.1 billion in reduced commuting costs and over half a billion hours spent travelling.

The study reported that 83% of workers would work flexibly if they were offered the opportunity and stated that this could “potentially add an extra £11.5bn per year to the UK economy through the more productive use of available working hours, the equivalent of 0.7 of GDP”.

With employees enjoying a better work/life balance and greater job satisfaction, employers who do operate flexible working report lower absenteeism, greater productivity and improved retention.

Is Flexible Working the Future?

With the growing population of the small island we occupy, the increasing number of workers is resulting in overloaded commuter networks. Train delays, traffic jams and weather interruptions cost businesses millions of pounds in lost working time. Add to this the cost to businesses of sickness absences due to stress, or even colds and flu caught while commuting, it’s clear that the future of working will have to change if these issues are to be addressed. 

With the technological capabilities available to businesses today it’s easier and more cost effective than ever to enable employees to work flexibly, in particular from home. Most roles can, in part at least, be carried out without having to leave your home and there will be no chance of leaves on the line stopping you from making that important early conference call.

Employers at the forefront of flexible working are taking full advantage of the benefits already. They can occupy smaller premises, saving millions of pounds in overheads, and operate a “hot desk” system whereby employees book a desk when they need to attend the office.

One such example is global professional services organisation, Ernst & Young. As well as offering flexible and reduced hours, they also operate a hot desk system. In a March 2013 an Ernst & Young case study reported real estate savings of £3.6m and travelling costs for their employees reduced by £0.5m. Their forward thinking, proactive flexible working initiative also earned them the accolade of being named one of the 2014 Top 10 organisations for Working Families.

IBM is another well known business flying the flag for flexible working, offering options to over 400,000 employees across multiple divisions, geographies and all major business units. This includes everything from standard part-time working to compressed hours, term-time working, job share, annualised hours, mobile working and working from home. IBM reports that flexible working has enormous benefits for their organisation, including better employee morale and engagement and it represents a great retention tool. In its Global Work/Life Survey 2014 80% of employees said that they feel in control of where, how and when they work. At the Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion (ENEI) Awards 2014, IBM was awarded the ‘Flexible/agile working award’ for its focus on flexible working for all employees.

Everyone’s a Winner Baby!

It sounds like a win win situation. The employee is happier, healthier and more productive, the employer saves money, makes money and cuts down on a variety of issues like absenteeism. Even the environment benefits from a reduction in the number of daily commuters by road and rail.

So what are the downsides? Employees who work entirely from home can feel isolated and it will inevitably be more difficult to foster team spirit between colleagues. Working from home can have its own health and safety concerns, with employees being less mobile, and potentially working much longer hours than they would if they were having to commute. There will most probably be a small minority of employees who do abuse the luxury of working from home and providing supervision and monitoring can be challenging.

These are all issues however that have a solution and with suitable plans and checks in place there is no reason why flexible working can’t be a highly successful and rewarding option for all involved. For employers, it’s key to have clear policies and procedures in place, effective training and management, and regular open lines of communication with employees working flexibly.

Obviously not all jobs can be done from home, but flexible working covers a multitude of working patterns and there’s something out there to suit every role, employee and employer. Perhaps that “better life” Dolly Parton sang about was a flexible working pattern, more suited to her lifestyle than “workin’ 9 to 5”.

The articles published on this website, current at the date of publication, are for reference purposes only. They do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Specific legal advice about your own circumstances should always be sought separately before taking any action.