Building a flexible future

You must stay at home.” It was these five words from the Prime Minister on 23 March 2020 that transformed the working world. Prior to the pandemic, 87% of people wanted to work flexibly in the hope of achieving benefits including better work-life balance, more job satisfaction, reduced stress and increased productivity. Yet just 11% of jobs were advertised as being flexible, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)1. Then overnight the UK became home to a largely remote workforce – a silver lining amid a global crisis for those employees who had been craving more flexibility in their working lives, but whose employers were resistant.

“Companies who previously were not open to such flexibility have had their eyes opened to what’s possible, and a lot of companies are viewing this as an opportunity to change the way they work,” explains Claire Ward, Founder of SME HR consultancy The HR Hub. And that changes business, too. The CIPD says that improved engagement – one of the benefits of flexible working – can account for the generation of 43% more revenue and improves performance by 20%. The normalisation and support of flexible working, moreover, can help reduce an organisation’s gender pay gap and encourages a more diverse workforce, which, according to McKinsey, could add £150 billion annually to the UK economy by 20252. Offering flexible working also means businesses get the best of the bunch. Some 92% of people want to work flexibly, so offering this opens up a business talent pool, not to mention expanding your geographical talent pool too3.

There are of course some limitations, in particular when it comes to businesses that rely on creativity – brainstorming sessions, when done remotely, simply aren’t as effective. But this won’t necessarily be the case for long. “We’re already seeing technology that helps to break those creativity barriers, which have likely had their development accelerated over the past few months,” says Ward. Other disadvantages include increased loneliness and, for some companies, the financial outlay of supporting flexible working – though in the context of the bigger picture this cost is minimal.

“Generally, the advantages outweigh any disadvantages,” explains Claire McCartney, Senior Resourcing and Inclusion Adviser at the CIPD. “Organisations should see a boost in productivity, a more engaged workforce, a diverse workforce and the ability to attract top talent.”

The four-day week

While working from home took the flexible working spotlight in 2020, prior to the pandemic the four-day week – whereby employees work four days instead of five without having their salary reduced – was gaining in popularity.

Henley Business School’s pre-pandemic white paper Four Better or Four Worse delved into the world of the four-day week and revealed that the combined savings to UK businesses that had implemented this was £92 billion4. However, Professor James Walker, Director of Research at Henley Business School, points out a notable concern for business owners.

“While 75% believe a less rigid working structure is key to a harmonious and diverse workplace, for some the benefits are either unnecessary or not substantial enough to warrant implementation. The biggest concern for business leaders is customer availability,” says Professor Walker. The white paper reveals that 82% of businesses don’t offer a four-day week as they believe employee availability to the customer outweighs the need for more flexible working, while nearly three quarters feel it would be difficult to implement, particularly in the case of small businesses.

Emerging from the pandemic

Remote working has become the go-to of flexible working, but it’s important to remember that this was forced upon us as the result of a global crisis. As we emerge from this pandemic and businesses reassess their working practices, they must consider all options. “There are many forms of flexible working, from remote, part-time and term-time working, to compressed hours, flexi-time and jobs shares,” says McCartney. “Employers will have to look beyond working from home otherwise risk creating a two-tier workforce of those who have the opportunity to benefit from remote working and flexibility and those who don’t.”

It could be, as Ward believes will be the case for SMEs, that there will be a shift towards businesses implementing core office days, which, as with any alternative that doesn’t require a full-capacity office, offers the bonus of reducing a business’s carbon footprint.

But before any decisions are made, a dialogue needs to happen. “There is an imperative to open up conversations between employers and their employees, to trial and evaluate different forms of flexible employment which best suit the contexts and workplace roles,” advises Professor Walker. After all, shifting an entire sector into a particular form of flexible working is not only what Professor Walker describes as a “drastic step” but, ironically, not very flexible at all.


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