In what has been a period of unprecedented upheaval, employers have learnt a lot about their working practices and staff. As we enter the new world, employers have a unique opportunity to build back better including normalising flexible working for all.
On 5 March 2021 the Minister for Women and Equalities, Liz Truss MP, urged the country to normalise flexible working for all, making it a standard option for all employees, in a bid to help level-up the United Kingdom regardless of gender or other protected characteristics, further boost opportunities for women across the board, and reduce geographic inequality as we recover from the pandemic.
The Report, published by the Government Equalities Office, was supported by research from the government-backed Behavioural Insights Team and recruitment website Indeed (Encouraging employers to advertise jobs as flexible). Both concluded that offering flexible working explicitly in jobs adverts increases application uptake by up to 30%. Liz Truss further argued that by offering flexible working for all as a standard, both productivity and morale would be boosted, further employment prospects of women (who are twice as likely as men to work flexibly) would improve, as well as the prospects of those who live outside major cities. Thinking ahead, further research carried out by the Future Forum Research found that just 12% of the 4,700 participants wanted to return to a full-time, 9am – 5pm, office working arrangement.
Of course, the desire for flexible working is nothing new. In 2019 Aviva found that 22% of workers in the UK had changed company in a bid to seek greater flexibility with a staggering 46% of employees confessing to feeling awkward about discussing personal commitments with their supervisor and 35% feeling uncomfortable asking for flexible working despite wanting to do so. But the pandemic has been the litmus test for British business and the results have shown that our workforce can work both efficiently and productively on a flexible basis.
But should employees have to justify why they need or want to work flexibly? The argument that people need to work flexibly because of their childcare or caring responsibilities is a well-trodden path but in practice why does the reason for formally requesting flexible working, in compliance with the current UK laws, matter? Should the right to request flexible working even be limited to employees only? If an employee or worker wants to work remotely so that it fits in around other lifestyle arrangements, then why shouldn’t they be allowed to? If they want to work earlier or later in the day because that is when they feel most productive then why shouldn’t they? If they want to take a few hours in the middle of the day to go for a run, meet with friends, bake a cake, do yoga, then why shouldn’t they? As long as they complete the job that they are required to do and work the hours that they are contracted to do, surely that’s what matters?
Now we aren’t suggesting that all employees and workers should have an unfettered right to spurn their employment responsibilities and do whatever they want, whenever they want to do it nor are we suggesting that all jobs can offer the same degree of flexibility but there are clear benefits to finding the right balance between the business needs of the employer and staff wellbeing generally.
Normalising flexible working will serve to improve the mental health of the workforce, award workers the autonomy to plan their day around other commitments and stressors, afford them the freedom to work when they feel most creative and generally improve their health and wellbeing. In turn, normalising flexible working will lead to a happier workforce which results in greater productivity and subsequently profit for the employer’s business (the CIPD suggest that revenue could increase as much as 43% for businesses that have flexible working as the norm), reduces rates of absenteeism, assists with building loyalty and trust with employees, improves retention and progression rates amongst the workforce and increases the chances of attracting top talent.
Some suggestions to assist with normalising flexible working include:
- Revise an existing or implement a new flexible working policy so that the default answer to working flexibly is ‘yes’ wherever possible, rather than what may have been a historic ‘no’ to avoid employees needing to justify a more formal request. A formal request still involves a rigorous procedure to be adopted, and time frames!
- Increase employee engagement so that they have an accurate understanding of how the workforce, or different parts of the workforce, feel about flexible working and what the demand for normalising flexible working looks like.
- Educate managers and supervisors so that they can understand the benefits to flexible working, regardless of reason, and give them the knowledge and tools needed to supervise flexible workers efficiently.
- Improve communication systems and policies so that they can stay connected to workers more easily and be open and transparent about targets and expectations.
- Advertise flexible working as standard on all job roles and in turn have greater options in terms of recruiting the very best talent.