Work is great, but have you ever had a job that gives you freedom to enjoy all the other stuff life has to offer? More and more employees are demanding – or needing – to spend more time working from home or working hours that suit life's other demands. Organisations are relaxing the rules around how, when and where employees work – but flexible working isn’t an approach you can roll out without any thought.


17th March 2020

It wasn’t long ago that flexible working meant leaving the office early a couple of days a week or working from home because you had a doctor’s appointment in the middle of the day. It was almost exclusively the prerogative of working parents – mums, mainly – and you had to formally request it.

Today, flexible working presents itself in various guises. It’s not appropriate for employers to offer a small selection of options, or for managers to judge who has a legitimate reason to stray from the norm. Employees want to decide what arrangement fits their needs and stages of life.

It suits some to compress five days into four, or extend five to seven, work earlier or later in the day, or swap shifts with a colleague. Others are taking jobs far from home and working in the office mid-week – lodging locally on Tuesday and Wednesday nights – and from home on Mondays and Fridays.

Some people just want marginal changes to the start or end of a standard 9 to 5 so they can do the school run, avoid rush hour or – dare you ask – attend a gym class without anyone calling out “part-timer” across the office. And why shouldn’t they?

For most roles, time and location make little difference to someone’s ability to do their job. If anything, working at more convenient times improves performance.

The government’s 2014 Flexible Working Regulations gives anyone in continuous employment for 26 weeks the right to request flexible working – but people aren’t doing so just because the law now says they can.

Keeping up with societal demand
Over the past three decades, there has been a stark societal shift in how we live and work.

For example, more men want to spend time with their families. Children of the 1970s were lucky to see their dads for 15 minutes each day. Today, supported by another law, 2015’s shared parental leave regulation, a third of parents split childcare equally.

However, there is still a gender imbalance, possibly due to employers’ lingering outdated expectations of which parent should adjust their working day; in a recent survey of 2,000 workers
by Tiger Recruitment, 36 per cent of women said they feel they can take advantage of home or remote working, compared to 17 per cent of men, and 20 per cent of women said they can work part-time, versus 11 per cent of men.

A new generation: multi-generations
Childcare obligations aside, our working lives are longer, extending across almost 60 years. People don’t want to grind away for decades in a way that’s inconvenient, uncomfortable or detrimental to their health. Enabling team members to clock in and out wherever and whenever they feel most relaxed and focused helps reduce burnout, stress and physical conditions.

Emma Stewart, CEO and co-founder of flexible working consultancy Timewise, says the workforce demographic has fundamentally changed.

“We have never before had five generations in the workplace. Business leaders need to service the needs of those who want to work less as they get close to retirement. They need to respond to baby boomers – men and women with caring responsibilities. And there’s the young generation, who are entering the workplace with ambitions of developing their own businesses and having portfolio careers.”

Fifteen years ago, Emma and Timewise co-founder Karen Mattison had been working as consultants and felt frustrated at the career limitations they faced once they had children.

“We saw so many women who had fallen out of work or were trapped by the need to work flexibly,” says Emma. “We developed Women Like Us coaching programmes for women who were returning to work, but we realised the challenge wasn’t about working mums, but about structural inequality.”

Start a conversation early
Timewise’s research suggests nine out of 10 people in the UK have or want some form of flexibility in how they work. However, only 15 per cent of job adverts mention it. Companies unwilling to bend their traditional hours will find talent knocking on other doors.

Address the topic from day one, advises Emma. “If you want a more diverse and broader pool of talent, you will have a competitive edge if you talk about it from the point of hire.”

Too often, the onus is on the candidate to broach the subject. Timewise data suggests only about one in five line managers offers flexible working when recruiting, and research published this year by suggests more than two-fifths of managers would be reluctant to hire people who desire flexible working.

“The best employers take ownership of the conversation and are clear that they are open to it,” says Emma. “Support hiring managers and resourcing teams to embed flexible working into recruiting and make sure they bring up the subject in the interview. We call it flexible hiring, rather than flexible working.”

Flexible hiring

Many companies are taking a proactive approach. Employees in accountancy firm EY’s Australia offices can top up their holiday entitlement with six to 12 weeks of self-funded leave (to take in one or two blocks) to travel or enjoy life’s little pleasures.

The firm also introduced options for colleagues to work full-time during term times and have the school holidays off, or work part-time for up to three months. The policies were introduced in 2019 “so we don’t lose people while they pursue passions outside of work,” says EY Oceania’s people partner, Kate Hillman.

In 2018, professional services firm PwC introduced its Flexible Working Network. Those interested in joining the company register their skills and preferred work pattern – which could be shorter hours each day or working for only a few months of the year – and PwC places candidates in available project roles. It means employees can work comfortably around other callings – kids, caring responsibilities, wanderlust – and PwC gets access to the most diverse and expert workforce possible. More than 2,000 people signed up to the network in its first two weeks.

Everyday flexibility is embedded at PwC, explains Alexa Highfield, director of change, communications and culture. “If you don’t need to be on site with a client, it’s completely within your remit to decide how you want to work. We make it very clear that we are breaking down that 9 to 5 mentality and rigid structure. It’s about what you deliver as part of your role.”

Boost to productivity

The benefits to flexible working are countless – and businesses have as much to gain as the employee.

As well as unlocking the door to a wider talent pool and lowering sickness absence, flexible working yields happier and energised employees who will reward you with loyalty and hard – or harder – graft.

In a 2020 IoIC poll, two-thirds of respondents said they were “much more productive” in the periods or on the days they work flexibly versus typical office hours, with a further 21 per cent saying they were “a little more productive”.

Naturally, employees will be able to take on more work – and do their best work – when they personally feel most productive. Furthermore, academic researchers from the University of Kent and Vrije University in Amsterdam suggest that those who choose their own work pattern put in more effort to counter the stigma attached to flexible working.

Alexa believes flexibility contributes significantly to PwC’s high productivity.

“As consultants, we often have a huge amount of work to do but there will be peaks and troughs,” she says. “Flex working gives you an opportunity to get your energy back and deliver a huge amount in a short space of time. As a side benefit, it’s also helped us streamline our real estate portfolio.”

Changing the culture
At search marketing agency Reddico, a flexible working scheme was set up in 2018 to improve culture and eliminate confusion around what was and wasn’t possible – but the knock-on boost to performance quickly became apparent.

Luke Kyte, head of culture and business improvement, explains: “Some people are raring to go first thing in the morning. Others need a few coffees before they get going at 11am. Others work better later – like our development teams, who are happy thrashing out HTML codes at midnight. Why do we condition people to work 9 to 5 when we may not get the most out of everyone in the team?

“People don’t want to be micro-managed. When you give them autonomy and control, they have more purpose in what they’re doing. If you put team members’ needs first, you create an environment where they will go the extra mile.”

Reddico introduced its scheme after colleagues fed back that managers had too much control in how they worked and the decisions being made around flexible working were inconsistent from one team to another.

“We stripped it back to focus on self-regulation, rather than what people are allowed to do,” says Luke. “We said, we’ll free you up to do a good job – prove to us you can do it.”

It has been a shot in the arm to productivity. Since the scheme launched, Reddico’s client customer NPS score has soared from 60 and “excellent” to 81 and “world class”; the internal team happiness NPS score has moved from “good” to “world class”; and 2019 revenue was up 40 per cent and profit up 65 per cent on the previous year.

“When you come into our office now, you can see the atmosphere has changed from how it was a couple of years ago,” says Luke. “The happier the team, the happier your clients and customers.”

Keeping the team informed
Clients, customers and colleagues won’t be smiling for long if your flexible working arrangements have no regard for their needs.

Most contacts won’t care if you’re at your office desk or in the back garden when they call, but things might get rocky if they can’t get hold of you at all because you haven’t told them you work 7am-3pm or that you’re not in on Fridays. The emphasis must be on the individual to make clients aware of how they work.

When Reddico scrapped line manager approval, it put the responsibility for working patterns in individuals’ hands. Team members book holidays and working-from-home days in the HR system, which is synced with everyone’s Google Calendars, offering total transparency. They just need to make sure they advise the whole team – internal and external – accordingly and that there is no negative impact on work.

“As long as you are available for meetings and phone calls, and you keep clients informed, you can service them as you want,” says Luke. “We can’t have everyone off at the same time in case there’s a client emergency. It’s about constant collaboration and conversation.”

Alexa acknowledges that, given the high number of client-facing roles in PwC, balancing that freedom with clients’ expectations is a challenge – even more so for the consultants who are based within the offices of client organisations that may have a different mindset to flexibility.

“We set the boundaries from the start, talking to our clients about our preferred ways of working and setting up levels of engagement,” says Alexa. “We talk about what the client wants, needs and values, and we talk about how we do things at PwC. If the client wants us to be in the office between 9 and 5, then that’s what we will do, but we try and find some common ground on flexibility.”

Avoid rigid flexibility
Having too rigid a policy around flexible working goes against the spirit of it. At PwC, there is no rulebook, but Alexa stresses the importance of clearly articulating the principles of what flexible working means for you – as a manager and an employee.

“Managers need to have the emotional intelligence to recognise that people have other things going on in their lives.

“I give a steer about what I expect from my team members and, conversely, I want to understand what they expect, so I can align the two. Otherwise, you get inconsistencies. If there is no clarity around why people come in to the office some days and not on others, that can lead to an adverse impact on morale.”

An emotional topic

Kate Jarman, director of corporate affairs at Milton Keynes University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, believes a blocker to this kind of open conversation is the formal, statutory application process many organisations still enforce.

“Flexible working is loaded with emotion,” she says. “People are often coming at it when they are on maternity or paternity leave or because they have a relative that needs care or they have their own long-term health condition that means they require different ways of working. Lots of things hang off that agreement. You can’t make childcare arrangements until you know if you can work flexibly.

“You need managers to be capable of having mature, confident, two-way conversations, and for them to be knowledgeable about what is realistic, so they can say, ‘I can’t do that for you, but I can do this.’”

Empowering managers
Kate and an NHS colleague set up the Flex NHS network after meeting virtually on Twitter. Both had posted and blogged about being working parents and questioned how to make flexible working effective in the NHS.

“Women often talk about how lucky they are to be able to do the school run,” says Kate. “It’s easy if you are senior and work in a corporate area – and you have a supportive boss, which is not always the case. You have control over your own diary. But a band 5 midwife or a junior doctor is expected to work a 12-hour shift or have a designated handover time, which is when it becomes complicated.”

Through FlexNHS, peers exchange views across social media and at events.

“We want to empower managers to say, ‘Here are the shifts that need covering, work out how it’s going to happen. If you need management support, we’ll help.’ Show colleagues you are willing to take that step and have trusted relationships. Give them agency to work it out between them.

“Look at what your organisation needs and how everyone can achieve it together. It’s not straightforward and the biggest takeaway for me has been that there’s not one size that fits all.”

No one employee’s needs are greater than anyone else’s, and businesses must move beyond a hierarchy of needs. This hit home for Kate during a discussion with a colleague.

“I’d said I needed time off because I have young kids, and a colleague asked, ‘Are you saying my time is not as important because I don’t have kids?’ It really stopped me short – but she was right. Everyone’s time is of equal value.

“It’s about saying we all want time out of work to do what’s important in our lives. As a team, find a way to have conversations about what people need in a way that makes everyone comfortable.”

Getting started with an approach

PwC’s Alexa suggests progressing a flexible working culture starts with establishing what it would mean for your organisation, and what principles you wish to apply.

“Make sure that whatever you decide is clearly communicated, and leaders buy into it and understand how it fits into their role,” she advises. “Internal communication should support them to champion it.”

At Reddico, an initial manifesto was announced to the company and colleagues were encouraged to get involved to ensure the right solutions were implemented.

“We held all-team meetings,” says Luke. “You need to consider people’s ideas, rather than say, ‘This is how we are going to do it and tough luck.’ We kept communications open and showed people a roadmap – what the future will look like. We didn’t want people sitting round wondering when things were going to happen.”

Don’t assume that because you have communicated a flexible working policy, it’s job done. Many employers remain unconvinced there is a demand for flexible working, and Emma believes that’s because people aren’t coming forward in case their request puts their career development at risk. In a Timewise survey, around a quarter of flexible workers said they were given fewer opportunities than those who work conventional hours.


Telling stories about flexible working
In a CMI study of managers, more than 70 per cent of women, and 57 per cent of male managers, said flexible working had supported their careers. Internal communication can tell stories about what commitments leaders are juggling and how flexible working has helped their progression. That visible leadership gives people permission to ask to work differently.

“There’s a big difference between saying you offer flexible working and showing it,” says Emma. “Make people believe that they can have honest and open conversations. Talk openly, have a flex working strategy, and get business leaders to role model the behaviour you want to see. Look for ‘leaving loudly’ case studies – people who are open about working in different ways.”

Still, not everyone is comfortable with the idea. Some managers feel they have less control and can’t imagine how it will actually work. Many are concerned about how productive people are when they are at home.

Emma reflects, “If you have issues around trust, you shouldn’t be employing people in the first place.”

Getting the balance right

Difficulties arise when managers are not supported to manage a flexible workforce or advised how best to respond to candidates or employees asking for more flex.

“They may have had a poor experience of flexible working in the past,” suggests Kate, “or no experience at all. But why was that a poor experience? Is it because someone asked to work part-time, but was expected to do their old five-day job in three – and so they left? Think proactively about how you can shape the role to work in a different way.”

Alexa says that getting the balance right so that flexible working meets everyone’s needs is a challenge.

“If you’re in the middle of an intense project and someone needs to leave, that can be difficult when you and the team have things you want to achieve.”

Understanding in advance when people need to be flexible, especially in times of high pressure, makes that approach work in reality and ensures managers and colleagues aren’t blind-sided by sudden requests.

“I’ve personally experienced how that helps,” says Alexa. “One of my team wanted to go running at 5 every Wednesday. She had told me about it beforehand, so it wasn’t a surprise or point of stress for me. A list of non-negotiables is practical and helps me understand when people need to be flexible.”

Overcoming practical hurdles
In many industries, such as manufacturing, retail or mining, flexible working is more challenging for those in the front line. Home-working is virtually impossible and certain tasks will need to be completed at or by a certain time each day, meaning there’s limited scope to radically adjust your shift hours.

Having said that, anything is possible. Construction company Morgan Sindall reviewed its working patterns, partly to try and attract more women into a male-dominated sector. The company looked at every job role and whether flexibility could be introduced by home-working, offering alternative locations or ensuring teams collectively agree who covers which shifts.

In two years, the number of women in the company doubled and is now comfortably above the industry average.

Tech: the double-edged sword
Advancing technology, software and broadband has been a huge enabler for people to work flexibly, allowing employees to link up with colleagues and clients from almost anywhere. A recent Trade Union Congress survey states the number of people who regularly work from home has risen by 27 per cent in the past decade.

One downside is that it can blur the boundaries between employees’ personal and work lives. Many people who work fragmented or reduced hours end up logging in late in the evening and working more hours than they’ve agreed to, which impacts the balanced life they’re striving for. It’s important that managers, leaders and internal communicators make it clear – through formal messaging and informal dialogue – that the flexible working culture is intended to alleviate the burden of work and not just transfer it somewhere else.

Psychologists have suggested dipping in and out of work and the resulting pressure to be always on can have a negative health effect; working in fits and starts throughout the day prevents your mind and body from switching off, weakening your immune system.

Jacqueline Ryan, internal communications and employee engagement adviser at Kerry Foods, reflects: “You need to make people aware that just because someone is sending you an email at 6am or 9pm to suit their flexible day, you aren’t expected to reply at that time. It can be hard to switch off if there are emails coming in and you’re either genuinely interested or feel under pressure to respond.

“I’ve seen a colleague add to their signature, saying ‘I’m thankful that my employer has empowered me to work flexibly and I’m sending this message now because it works for me. However, I don’t expect you to read, respond or action it outside of your regular hours.’ I think that’s a nice touch.”

Keeping up with culture
Working from home without the interruption of colleagues will likely help you focus on getting more work done, but it can compromise collaboration.

Find ways to ensure virtual relationships don’t eclipse face-to-face teamwork. For all the reports suggesting millennials are the biggest petitioners for flexible working, research by London School of Economics indicates younger workers want to work in the office to learn from colleagues.

“I make the effort to talk to people if I notice they haven’t been to the office for a while,” says Alexa. “At PwC, we have team meetings every other Friday, when you’d think people would want to be at home, but actually, they want to come in as it’s a good opportunity to have individual conversations and understand more about our strategy and how we are delivering on it.”

Not everyone shares this view. One consequence for many organisations has been that employees are choosing to work from home on the same days, turning once-bustling offices into ghost towns. If your office is missing the Friday feeling at the end of the week, try moving team get-togethers or social events to other days when most people are in.

And while the choice for many is to work from home to convenience their personal lives, for others the preference is actually to not come in to the office.

Finance consultant Janine Evans worked for one company that prided itself on being flexible, but nearly everyone made the decision to work from home.

“The result was a tumbleweed office,” she says. “Flexibility is a wonderful perk, but also an indicator of the mindset of the company. I think the fact that most people decided to stay away from the office was a result of the environment of the actual office. I think that if it was a place where people actually wanted to be, it would have worked much better.”

Find a happy place
Make sure that a flexible working model is not a sticking plaster for underlying issues. It should be consistent with your wider culture and how you engage and manage people across the board.

Be flexible, adaptable and agile in everything you do. Accept that work is not the be all and end all in employees’ lives and support them to meet their work commitments in the most comfortable way. If employers and managers help their teams to get their personal lives and wellbeing in a good place, they will be rewarded by a focused performance during working hours – whenever they are – and loyalty to the company,

Talent will walk away if they don’t get the flex they ask for, as they’ll find somewhere else that is happy to provide it.

“Forward-thinking businesses are making a real commitment,” says Emma. “It’s not just a part of the diversity and inclusion agenda, but a critical part of shaping and designing the workforce. We have a long way to go, but the dial is turning.”

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