Flexible working is here to stay: it’s time to start designing jobs and workplaces that truly embrace it

Flexible working is a fundamental part of the modern workplace. Whether it’s part time working, working remotely, job sharing, or working ‘irregular’ hours, it gives many people the opportunity to fit work around their other commitments. The ageing workforce, the rise of the ‘sandwich generation’ with increasing caring responsibilities, the growing numbers of parents with young children wanting to adopt different working patterns, or more people choosing different options for greater work-life balance all mean that the case and need for flexible working has never been stronger.  

Since 2014, all employees in the UK have a legal right to request flexible working and CIPD research shows that 76% of employers in the UK now offer at least one form of flexible working.  Take-up is growing, but whilst 54% of employees now report that they work flexibly in some shape or form, for most this is limited to part-time hours or remote working. Just 5% report that they are job-sharing, working compressed hours or adopting term-time working.  

The benefits of flexible working – for employer and employee alike - are well established. Our research shows that 65% of flexible workers are satisfied or very satisfied with their work–life balance, compared with 47% of employees who don’t work flexibly. We also know that employers who embrace flexible working are better able to attract and retain a diverse pool of talent. What’s more, many businesses rely on people who are willing to adopt non-traditional working hours in order to serve customers who increasingly expect a 24/7 service, or to deal with peaks and troughs in demand.

So why is take-up still relatively low? Persisting cultures of presenteeism and negative stereotypes associated with flexible working seem to be part of the picture.  Our latest research amongst workers with caring responsibilities (which we'll be publishing next month, during Carers Week)  suggests that, although employers generally support carers’ need to work flexible hours, take time off at short notice, or job share where necessary, some carers feel that this can be a barrier to their career progression. And according to research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), pregnant women and new mothers today are more likely to face negative treatment and discrimination at work than they were a decade ago – one in five new mothers said they experienced harassment or negative comments related to pregnancy or flexible working, and one in nine reported losing their job.

These are stark reminders that workplace mind-sets and attitudes have not kept pace with policy and trends in the workforce.  So what will it take to create workplace cultures that truly embrace flexible working? For a start, we need to train managers to understand how best to manage flexi-workers, and to fairly assess their contributions and output.  But we also need to change our approach to organisational design and start creating more, higher quality flexible roles. According to Timewise’s Hire me my way campaign, less than 1 in 10 quality job vacancies offering £20K FTE or more are advertised as being open to flexible working options. Part-time work also tends to be less well-paid than equivalent full-time work, and quality flexible roles are extremely scarce in some sectors. CIPD volunteers are helping to support some of those trying to access flexible roles, through the extension of our Steps Ahead Mentoring programme to support parent returners’ in the North West, but more opportunities are needed. Not only does a lack of flexibility deny certain segments the of the workforce the opportunity to pursue the careers they’d like to, but it also means that organisations are losing or missing out on key talent.

As the future of work unfolds, flexible working will become an increasingly important feature of modern society – whether through choice or necessity.  Growing numbers of people already choose to work for themselves, or as contract workers, to get more choice over when and how they work. And some countries are starting to explore shorter working weeks in anticipation of the increased automation of many roles. Whatever the drivers for flexible working, we’ll only reap the full benefits if we challenge the still prevalent cultures and preconceptions, along with our people management and working practices. 

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  • Flexible working is a very useful tool to fit work around day to day commitements. I am very lucky in my job as I am contracted to work from 16:00 to 23:00 Monday to Friday. Even though it is not part of flexible working arrangement, these hours suits me very well. I can study in the morning!

    Flexible working should be promoted a lot more within a workplace because this will enable people to work around other commitments and at the same time carry out day to day activities at work.

  • Not sure if if's them embracing the future, growing too quickly or just being mean, but I work with one design agency who recently told me they wouldn't even have enough office space for their entire team if they all showed up for work on the same day.