Flexible working: successful practices to unleash the benefits

Flexible working

Lisa Jobson is a specialist in talent management and management consulting and has extensive experience in supporting businesses to determine focus and the strategic importance of diversity.

The way we work is changing. Flexible working, where employees can choose to work during times of the day or at a location of their choosing, is moving to the fore as employers develop their approach to diversity and inclusion.

In 1999, the TUC’s Labour Force Survey found that just 19.4% of workers in the UK worked with some level of flexibility. This number had risen to 63% by 2017, according to Timewise, and 93% of employees wanted to work part-time or flexibly in that year.

This shift has only accelerated during the pandemic; a 2020 Gartner HR survey found that nearly 50% of organisations reported 81% or more of their employees were working from home in April. This has shown many businesses that they can still work effectively away from the office-based 9 to 5 – and vindicated many employees who had unsuccessfully requested it.

In this guide, we explore ways that flexible working can impact a business, including law, discrimination, the disadvantages, and benefits. We then detail exactly how organisations can shape and implement effective flexible working practices that improve business performance without sacrificing staff needs.

What is flexible working?

Flexible working covers a broad range of working arrangements, including (but not limited to):

  • Changing from full-time to part-time work
  • Changing your hours to fit other aspects of your life, such as schooling and care
  • Compressed hours (working your usual hours in fewer days)
  • Working from home
  • Job sharing
  • Annualised hours (working a certain number of hours over the year)
  • Phased retirement (reducing hours in the lead up to retirement)
  • Starting and finishing work at different hours
  • Hybrid working arrangements

Essentially, it is any working pattern different to your existing one.

What rights do employees have?

According to The Flexible Working Regulations 2014, every employee has the legal right to request flexible working once per year if they have been working for their employer for at least 26 weeks.

To do so, an employee must make a statutory application, writing to their employer to set out their wish to work flexibly, as well as noting how they wish to work, and how their flexible working will potentially affect the business.

From there, the business has three months to consider its response, and if they refuse, they must give business-related reasons for doing so – although the employee may still complain to an employment tribunal if they are unhappy with the decision.

Flexible working discrimination

Being able to request flexible working is a good step forward, but the practice does still carry a stigma in many workplaces. This can lead to flexible working discrimination – also referred to as flexism – where staff are discriminated against due to flexibly performing their roles.

It occurs if team members working flexibly are treated differently by management or other members of staff due to their working arrangements. It can also occur when staff who could benefit from a flexible approach to work choose not to, for fear of being discriminated against.

The scale of stigma is significant. According to Timewise, in 2018, 30% of flexible workers felt they had a diminished status in the company due to working flexibly, 25% felt they were given fewer opportunities, and another quarter believed they had missed out on a promotion due to flexible working.

The Working Families 2019 Modern Families Index also found that part-time parents had a 21% chance of promotion within the next three years, as opposed to a 45% chance for their full-time colleagues. In a survey of 1,600 civil servants carried out by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership in 2019, 25% felt their superior saw their flexible working as a negative, and 35% felt the need to put in extra hours to show their commitment.

Employee benefits

There are a great number of benefits open to staff that work flexibly:

  • Better work-life balance – Flexible working allows staff to be able to adapt their working patterns to their personal and family lives, thereby reducing conflicts between the two and the inevitable stress that can result. It also lets employees fit their work around medical conditions or disabilities, making work more accessible.
  • Improved quality of life – Working flexibly has been shown to improve quality of life markers for staff (individual ways of assessing the quality of life). According to a 2015 survey from Coso Cloud, 45% of remote workers got more sleep, 35% more exercise, 42% ate healthier, and 53% reported less stress, than full-time workers. And according to Perkbox’s 2018 workplace stress survey, work was the most common source of stress for respondents.
  • Reduced expenses – As many workers have found during 2020, remote working is much less expensive than office-based working. Whether it’s a cheaper or non-existent commute, being able to make food at home, or less temptation to spend due to not being in the city, the savings can be significant.
  • Care responsibilities – Be it childcare or looking after disabled or elderly family members, being able to change working patterns means staff do not have to choose between their care responsibilities and careers.

Employer benefits

Flexible working improves employee wellbeing and engagement, delivering significant benefits for employers:

  • Improved productivity – Flexibility allows staff to work when they are most productive, improving their output and work quality. According to a 2012 study by Ctrip, working from home one day a week led to staff productivity increasing by 13%, and CoSo Cloud’s 2015 survey found that 77% of employees felt more productive when working off-site.
  • Reduced costs – Ctrip’s study also showed that flexible working saved the company around £1,422 per employee over a 12-month period, due to decreased furniture and space requirements.
  • Less presenteeism – Defined as working when ill, but at a reduced rate of productivity, presenteeism costs the UK economy £21.2 billion per year, according to 2017 Centre for Mental Health figures. If more employees could work flexibly around illness, this figure might not be as large.
  • Less absenteeism – The same Centre for Mental Health study found sickness absence costs the UK economy £10.6 billion per year. The cost of replacing staff who leave their jobs due to poor mental health is £3.1 billion. 18 million days of work were lost due to stress, depression or anxiety in 2019/2020, according to the HSE. Flexible working offers a way to reduce these figures by improving the staff experience.
  • Attract and retain talent – As already touched on, staff want flexible working, which means many may consider moving to new roles to experience the benefits. This can cost companies a serious amount – research by Oxford Economics and Unum in 2014 found the average cost of losing an employee earning over £25,000 per year cost a business £30,614 on average.

The disadvantages of flexible working

There are some cons when it comes to flexible working, although these are indicative of other organisational problems rather than the nature of flexible working itself.

  • Lack of supervision – Flexible working is not well-suited to employees that require constant supervision or coaching in their roles. This can usually be improved by providing training or disciplinary action, however.
  • Unfairness – Employers implementing flexible working must do it fairly in an all-or-nothing manner, otherwise they could be opening themselves up to legal action from employees. Understand the law and follow the rules to avoid this disadvantage.
  • Work-life balance – If an employee is not able to make a distinction between where their work life ends and personal life begins, then this can harm productivity and mental health. To avoid this, it’s important for employees to have their own workspaces at home, and for employers to ensure overtime isn’t taking place on a regular basis.
  • Team cohesion – Flexible working typically means every team member isn’t in the same place at the same time. When poorly managed, this can harm communication and cohesion, leading to decreased productivity and wellbeing.

See our employer’s guide to hybrid working, and learn more about How the world of work has changed and its potential impacts on inclusion.

Flexible working should not be regarded as a privilege based on tenure, and nor should it just be provided to those with caring responsibilities. Organisations across industries need to flex up their approach to the way their employees work to cultivate a more inclusive culture based on promoting health and wellbeing.

Flexible working practices: how to effectively create and implement

To create a successful flexible working practice that benefits the company and all its employees, leaders must take a structured, strategic approach to implementation.

1. Introduce a flexible working policy
With a clear and transparent flexible working policy, employees can understand the process behind requesting flexible working and how the company expects it to operate. This might include:

  • the types of flexible working available
  • eligibility criteria
  • how to submit a request
  • how meetings and responses to requests take place
  • how to appeal a decision, terms of flexible working trial periods
  • and the complaints procedure.

2. Record flexible working contract terms
In flexible workers’ contracts, note the terms of their flexible working arrangements so these can be understood and appraised when required.

3. Define a flexible working strategy
How you plan and manage flexible working will dictate how it impacts your company’s culture, processes, and growth. Defining a strategy is crucial. Work alongside leaders and managers to identify potential pain points due to flexible working and create lasting solutions to them.

4. Measure performance
In traditional organisational cultures, performance is typically judged by hours worked and overtime. If implementing flexible working, you must retool your appraisal system to account for output and productivity instead, as changing work patterns will be much more fluid and difficult to track.

5. Create a positive culture
Working flexibly can be a big change for a workplace, and if not managed correctly, mistaken resentments can occur, and culture can suffer. To guard against this, embed the approach in your culture with effective communication channels and technologies, and ensure that leaders and managers set a good example and promote the practice and its benefits.

6. Continually review and hone your approach
It’s unlikely you’ll create an airtight flexible working approach from the get-go. To continually improve it, periodically analyse and take time to listen to all employee concerns before and after flexible working has commenced. Feed these back into your policy and strategy, considering data showing how flexible working is impacting performance, culture, and wellbeing.

Flexible working is becoming the norm, but careful implementation is key to making it work for all. At EW Group, we can support you to build more inclusive cultures in your organisation. Get in touch with our experts to find out more.

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