As we emerged from lockdown, many office-based disciplines opted to move to working from home on a more permanent basis, and it has been reported that 86 per cent of UK businesses plan to offer employees greater flexibility. As we look to the future, have hybrid and flexible working become buzz words of the moment or will they become the future norm – and is it actually in our best interests?
It’s important to recognise that flexible working doesn’t just relate to location, home vs the office, it also covers working hours and patterns. Therefore, whilst some people may not have the ability to work from home, they may be able to utilise a flexible approach in other ways.
A report commissioned by charity Working Families, the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London and the University of East Anglia, suggested that all jobs should now be advertised as flexible from the outset, and not a bonus to be negotiated at a later date.
Their argument stems from the long-standing stigma against flexi-time where often working parents, disproportionately females, are forced to sacrifice pay and progression to secure a working pattern that aligns with their parental and/or caring responsibilities.
Currently all employees who have worked for the same employer for at least 26 weeks have the legal right to request flexible working, but unfortunately many feel they cannot ask for it. Often this is due to a culture of presenteeism or the fear of being overlooked for opportunity and promotion to senior roles.
A survey of almost 13,000 mothers carried out by the Trades Union Congress and the campaign group Mother Pukka found that 86 per cent of women working flexibly had faced discrimination at work. Additionally, 42 per cent said they would fear discrimination if they asked about flexible working in an interview and the same percentage said they would be concerned about a negative impact if they asked their current employer for flexible work.
Clearly, a cultural shift in perception is needed in the UK and we can take inspiration from our Scandinavian neighbours, with Finland’s Working Hours Act that has been active since the ‘90s. That allows employees to adjust their working start and finish times by up to three hours, and was updated in 2020 to enable people to determine both the timing and location of their work for at least half of their regular working hours.
Top-line benefits of flexible working policies for an individual include reduced commuting costs and time, and more control over their working day to improve work-life balance. However, flexible working benefits employers too. For example, reduced overheads, greater job satisfaction and engagement resulting in lower staff turnover thereby reducing recruitment costs and also improved motivation and increased productivity, boosting business outputs.
From a recruitment point of view, while the war on talent is ongoing in a competitive, candidate-driven market, workplaces without a flexible policy could lose out on prime candidates. Offering flexibility as a benefit widens the talent pool, creating more diversity of thought, experience and background as well as broadening the search to applicants who don’t live locally to the company base.
But it’s not simply a case of employers clicking their fingers and instigating a flexible working policy. It needs to align with the business, be practical for the company and its employees and requires thought about communication, processes and culture. Business leaders shouldn’t jump on the bandwagon and start offering new flexible benefits because it’s fashionable, but similarly they shouldn’t disregard its potential positive impact on the future of their business.
Flexible working is becoming an essential part of modern life and complements the movement to a hybrid digital future for our working population. That being said, there are some potential downsides to bear in mind.
Further reports on flexible working from LinkedIn revealed recently that three quarters of the British public believe working from home will negatively impact their careers, while 35 per cent of the C-suite executives surveyed were concerned over proximity bias.
Business leaders need to be disciplined not to show bias to those who they physically see in the office. Career progression should continue to be centred around performance and not location, so managers will need to work closely with HR teams to mitigate the risk of bias and establish fair and equitable measures of output.
For example, what is achieved as well as how it is executed. Appropriate training should be facilitated for managers but also for the wider teams to enable the most effective flexible working environment.
Ultimately employees should be treated as human beings, they should be trusted and given control over their working life – it makes the most business sense.
Whatever the flexible working policy is, it should be communicated with the team before, during and after its implementation. No single routine will suit everyone so agile business models, playing on the strengths of your people, will attract and retain the best employees and facilitate an optimal positive culture for the team.
Find a solution that works for both the organisation and the people, rather than opting for a quick-fix trend that isn’t going to work long-term.
Sarah Prasad, Head Resourcing senior HR business partner