What is Flexible Working? Everything You Need to Know

Carol Buchanan, Senior Inclusion and Diversity Consultant, and Courtney Wright, Inclusion and Diversity Consultant, explain the benefits of flexible working and the key considerations when adapting your workplace's policies.

Read about how the pandemic changed many organisations' approaches to flexible working and the positive impact it had on many employees' lives, as well as Carol and Courtney's personal experiences.

“Flexible working,” “hybrid working,” and “smart working” are just a few of the buzzwords emerging as organisations carve a path out of lockdown and into a brave new world.

But what do these new working patterns mean, what are flexible working regulations, and how can both organisations and employees benefit from new ways of thinking about this topic?

Organisations use terms like “flexible,” “hybrid,” and “smart” to describe work patterns that differ from their traditional offerings in terms of working hours, work duration, and/or work location. Organisations’ interpretations of these terms can differ.

But one thing is certain: with 90 percent of employees surveyed earlier this year by Ernst & Young saying they want more flexibility, the world of work post-pandemic will look very different.

The importance of flexible working arrangements

There is no doubt that the pandemic has had a huge influence on people’s personal and professional lives, and flexible working arrangements have moved from something considered desirable by potential candidates, to essential.

While this new revolution holds exciting opportunities for many, it is important to move forward with an open mind and a continuous improvement philosophy. Like anything new, it may take some time to find the right fit for your organisation, your people, and your clients.

All of this is impossible without effective line management. Line managers must be able to support and encourage high performance while also managing underperformance. 

How effective line management helps

For most skilled and many unskilled jobs, great managers do not need to be physically present to deliver strong team performance.

Many organisations have invested in better people management, as well as training and facilities, to help employees cope with the pandemic.

It’s time to abandon presenteeism in favour of trust, while also expanding compassionate management practices.

Flexibility means giving people options and allowing them to work in ways that meet their needs while also meeting the needs of your clients and organisation.

This kind of adaptability can improve inclusion, diversity, and efficiency while also increasing engagement and performance.

There will almost certainly always be a demand for well-designed work environments that are both accessible and inclusive.

Spaces for collaboration, spaces for working in a professional environment for those who require it but cannot get it at home, and spaces for working with clients.

Some roles are location-bound due to direct customer contact, while others are time-bound due to business hours, but I would encourage all employers to think creatively about flexibility. Engaging employees and clients to understand what could be beneficial, possible, and desired is a good way to gain a better understanding of what is required.

While work location is a hot button topic right now, flexibility can also look at how many hours are worked, different start and finish times, annualised hours, job shares and many more possibilities.

Are there different types of flexible working?

Flexible working is any style that differs from the typical pattern that would usually be required for a role. Often when we think of flexible working the first thing that comes to mind is ‘working from home’ or ‘flexing’ your hours.

In fact, there are multiple types of flexible working and it’s important for organisations to find the right fit for meeting both the needs of the employee and the needs of the business.

It’s important that you clarify what you mean by flexible working when communicating with your employees to avoid any confusion about how this applies to them.

Here is a handy summary of the main types of flexible working arrangements you are likely to come across:

Hybrid working

This involves employees splitting their time between being on site (an office, factory, store etc) and being remote.

Fully remote

This involves employees only working remotely, usually from their own home.

Part time

This involves an employee working less than what is considered ‘full-time hours’ for a role. Usually people choose to work less than the standard number of working days a week, but some people may opt to work less hours per day instead.

Job shares

This involves two or more people ‘sharing’ a role. For example, if an organisation advertises a role that requires a 35 hour week, this could be split into a job share e.g. one person works in the role for 15 hours a week and another works in the role for 20 hours a week.

Job shares can be beneficial for organisations as you are getting more than one perspective in the same role.

Compressed hours

This involves an employee working the full contracted hours advertised, but over fewer days. A typical 35-hour working week may look like 9:00 am-5:00 pm, Monday to Friday, with an hour lunch break.

For someone on compressed hours, they may work 8:00 am – 5:45 pm, Monday to Thurs with an hour lunch break.

Flexitime

This involves an employee having more control over their start and finish time each day. The organisation will set core hours, for example between 10:00 am to 16:00 pm each day, to meet business needs. Flexible working hours can be made specific to the individual.

Staggered hours

This involves an employee having different start, finish and break times from others in their team or organisation. You will often see this approach used for roles that are customer or client-facing, ensuring there is always someone to speak to.

How the pandemic forced change

Prior to the pandemic, many organisations dragged their heels on flexibility for fear of losing control over the quality and quantity of work delivered. 

Nonetheless, having been forced into flexible working due to the pandemic, most organisations now report that employees performed well without the usual high level of supervision.

And this was accomplished against the backdrop of homeschooling, enormous demands on household broadband capability, working at kitchen tables, and the general anxiety most of us felt about Covid and its impact on our daily lives. 

As a result, the positive levels of overall performance demonstrate that direct line of sight is not as strong an indicator of performance as previously thought.

So, what’s next? A variety of approaches are being taken for those roles and industries where flexibility is possible.

Some employers are still expecting all employees to return to the office full-time, while others are looking for a happy medium of two or three days in the office and the rest at home. Some others are taking the riskier step of allowing employees to choose where and when they work.

This latter approach assesses employees’ productivity based on output, such as the completion of required work or the satisfaction of clients’ needs, rather than the number of hours worked.

The benefits of flexible working

There are numerous advantages to being adaptable. For employees, it can improve work-life balance and make the workplace more accommodating to diverse needs.

As I (Carol) discovered, it also enables caregivers and those with limited mobility to engage in work that would otherwise be unavailable to them because it is entirely location-bound or only available on a full-time basis.

For employers, it broadens the talent pool to include people who aren’t in your immediate vicinity or who are unable to work full-time or traditional hours.

Taking a flexible approach to work can boost employee engagement and make you more appealing to a broader range of potential employees.

The benefits of flexible working can be unique to individual situations, but here are some examples of common benefits we see for both individuals and organisations.

For the individual:

  • Better work-life balance
  • Less time commuting
  • Saving on travel costs
  • Positive impact on mental health and wellbeing
  • Greater levels of autonomy and sense of being trusted

For the organisation:

  • Higher levels of employee job satisfaction
  • Increased productivity levels
  • Improved retention
  • Reduced absence rates
  • Attracting a more diverse talent pool
  • Cost efficiency – reduced office space, reduced travel costs
  • Increased flexibility for clients and customers

Are there any disadvantages to remote working?

According to recent CIPD research, 40% of people working from home reported working excessive hours, compared to 30% of those working in offices, which is something we should all be wary of.

However, it was discovered that shifting to home working had little impact on overall job quality, with employees reporting better relationships at work and speaking positively about employee voice.

What is the new hybrid working model?

‘Hybrid working’ has become a buzzword in all industries since the pandemic began, but the concept has been around for many years with very low employer adoption. 

A hybrid working model differs from a flexible working request in that it applies to an entire team or organisation as opposed to a single employee. An employee has the right to make a statutory flexible working application after working for an employer for 26 weeks.

This is done on an individual basis, and each request is treated as a separate matter by the employer. When a change is agreed upon, it becomes contractual. A hybrid working model, on the other hand, is an approach taken by organisations that applies to their entire workforce.

It is important for employers to develop a clear policy and guidelines when implementing a hybrid working model, consider how it can be effectively implemented in their business context and how it may impact their workforce. This is usually done by employers on an informal basis, meaning it does not amount to contractual change.

How our own lives have been impacted

Carol:

Having benefited from flexible working arrangements personally for the last ten years, I strongly believe the difference in organisational approach (outside the obvious industry-specific needs) is trust and line manager capability.

Although I had a form of flexible working before the pandemic, even this has changed dramatically since.

Working in Scotland while my headquarters are in London used to involve me travelling hours to get ‘in the room’ with people. Not only has the need to be physically face-to-face with people has reduced, but I now also work compressed hours (full-time but over less than five days).

This means I can work part-time while laterally having a full-time, fully-flexible contract. With the fully-flexible contract, I decide when, how and where I work. Providing I deliver my objectives and keep my clients happy, the choices are mine.

The personal benefits of this arrangement are huge, and for me, include:

· Reduced travel time and better work-life balance.

· Reduced travel costs and environmental impact.

· The freedom to choose the right environment for each of my tasks to maximise performance, e.g. quiet space for analysis, design and creative work, and busy offices for collaboration or to boost my sense of connection to others.

· Critically, the flexibility has allowed me, as a dyslexic person, to work in a way that best fits my needs. And as a mother of a severely disabled child, I’ve been able to have a thriving career whilst being a primary carer.

Courtney:

I first started working from home in a previous role, before I joined Inclusive Employers. This was during the beginning of the pandemic and was the first opportunity I’d had to work remotely. I’ve always found that I can concentrate better within my own space and working from home has really complimented my working style.

During this time, for me, flexibility was also about personal safety. As someone who enjoys running, the shorter, darker days of winter can often be a source of anxiety, especially living in a city.

After having this discussion with my manager, they were incredibly supportive in giving me the opportunity to flex my hours.

This allowed me to go running whilst it was still light, which was a small change that had a huge positive impact on my mental health and wellbeing at the time.

The increase in remote working coincided with a point where I felt ready to make the next step in my career. My partner’s role at the time was based in a different city so when looking for a new role, I was specifically seeking out something that would give me full flexibility in where I could live.

One of the things that drew me to Inclusive Employers (among many!) was the openness in the job advert to all different styles of flexible working, including remote working.

Starting a new job often brings a lot of anxiety with it, but I found that spending my first day in the comfort of my own home eased a lot of those initial worries we all pretend not to have – what if my bus is late, or I can’t find the office?

My colleagues are only a message, video call, or phone call away and I feel very connected despite us all living in different locations across the UK.

Why your recruitment process should focus on flexible working

Flexible working has not only become a necessity for organisations, but it has also become a source of competition. 

During the ‘great resignation’ of 2021, employees left their current jobs in favour of new ones that supported both their personal and professional lives, and we can expect this trend to continue. 

Potential candidates will be looking for evidence of a flexible remote working policy, as well as how you demonstrate your inclusive values. 

They want to know that they will be valued and supported from the moment they join your company. Have you made this clear and easy to find for them?

We can attract a more diverse pool of talent by having a flexible working policy. Consider the people we can reach if we are no longer constrained by geography or time. 

For example, a parent can now work around picking up their children from school, or a person who is unable to relocate for a job due to socioeconomic circumstances can now join the team remotely.

Creating a flexible working policy with Inclusive Employers

In this brave new, flexible working world, we must recall our key takeaways from the previous year. 

Working at a kitchen table or an ironing board is not a viable option. For those looking to embrace long-term flexibility, it’s critical to consider employees’ needs in these new contexts to ensure long-term wellbeing. 

I’d encourage employers to involve their employees in the design of flexible working arrangements, thinking through the implications and being ready to learn and adapt as we discover the ‘new normal’ of working patterns.

We at Inclusive Employers can assist you in developing or updating your own flexible working policy. To get in touch about this, please contact us here.

If you are a member, speak with your account manager about your options. We also recommend that you take a look at our Guidance for Managers on Flexible Working for additional top tips and advice.