Flexible working: what’s holding the UK back?

Prominent employers are increasingly embracing flexible working, considering flexi start and finish times, more working from home arrangements, and part-time working requests. Our Cezanne HR survey on performance management showed that 72% of UK employees are comfortable discussing work/life balance in their reviews, so the flexible working conversation isn’t going to disappear. Nor should it. If an organisation is finding it hard to source or retain talent, flexible working can be a major drawcard – especially if you’re not able to compete on salary.

But, many businesses in the UK still haven’t taken the leap to focus on productivity and quality of work over clock watching and ‘being seen’ in the office; what’s holding them back?

Work flexibility illustration

The UK Government is heading in the right direction

The Queen’s Speech in December 2019 stated ‘Measures will be brought forward to encourage flexible working, to introduce the entitlement to leave for unpaid carers…’ So, the focus on flexible working is firmly in the Government’s spotlight, building on the existing ‘right to request flexible working’.

But, it’s one thing for the Government to support flexible working, and indeed for HR to understand how important it is in attracting top talent, and quite another to translate that support into actual change. Simone Cheng, an Acas Policy Advisor notes that there is still a stigma around flexible working: ‘We hear the same stories, that most, in particular men, are still too afraid to put in a request for fear it would impact on their chances of career progression.’

Flexibility can improve productivity

Productivity levels in the UK have long been a concern – could flexible working be the answer? If employees and employers agree on outputs, with the employee responsible for meeting them – regardless of when the work is done – this employee, with their flexible work routine, is highly likely to hit those targets. Like a small business owner who knows the buck stops with them, an employee that has participated in agreeing their goals, is more likely to take ownership of their productivity, knowing that clocking hours up in the office isn’t what’s going to make an impact (or help them progress in their career), their outputs are.

Giving employees a choice about the time of day that they work – flexi start and finish times – is one way to tackle the productivity conundrum. The world often seems geared around early birds, but a lot of people are night owls. It makes sense to offer people who perform better in the later hours of the day a later start time (where practical for the business), so they are working during the hours when they are most alert and productive. Similarly, for people who work better earlier in the day, with energy levels lagging as the day goes on – why make them work when they aren’t at peak performance? Your team will invariably be a mix of night owls and larks, so offering flexi start and finish times, and taking advantage of natural bio rhythms, will also give you more business coverage across the day.

Flexi start and finish times should help staff avoid the morning or afternoon rush hour. They will arrive at work and finish their day on a more positive note – topping and tailing the day with a stressful commute can’t be the most productive approach! On a wider note, if more organisations give staff varying start and finish times, our public transport system would enjoy some much-needed relief from overcrowding – this better use of time might also save your staff money by travelling outside peak commuting hours!

Can flexible working improve the UK’s economic inactivity rate?

It has long been acknowledged that offering flexible working is ideal for opening up jobs to people that can’t commit to the traditional 9-5: parents returning to work, older workers, people with carer responsibilities, disabled workers … the list goes on. The ONS’ latest Labour market overview, UK: January 2020 shows economic inactivity at 20.6% – a ‘record low’. But, of this 20.6% of the population that aren’t working (and not looking for work), how many more people could be engaged in the workforce if the UK had a radical rethink about just how flexible work could really be? For example, could more parents who are staying home to care for children because of prohibitive childcare costs be working if given the right flexible opportunity?

Working from home arrangements and part time hours are popular flexible working options. It’s a very small pool of people who can dedicate their lives to their work 24/7, 365 days a year – as human beings most of us juggle a lot of different responsibilities. In an article about concerns for workers who will need to leave work to manage caring responsibilities, Claire McCartney from the CIPD highlighted to People Management the importance of: ‘offering flexible working, being flexible when carers need to take leave at short notice and training line managers to properly empower carers.’

Flexi start and finish times, working from home, or reduced hours can end up resulting in a more dedicated employee who appreciates their organisation’s flexibility and trust. Businesses can benefit from part time workers who are incredibly focussed, achieving similar or better results to their full-time colleagues. Steve Glaveski, the CEO and co-founder of Collective Campus tested the productivity of a 6-hour workday over 2 weeks and achieved very favourable results.

Line management attitudes need to change

To really shift the dial on flexible working, line managers need to be on board, understanding the arguments in favour of flexibility, and being reassured that they will still be able to ‘manage’ their workforce. Essentially, managers need to trust their staff to get on with their jobs – without having to be seen doing it!

Many workplaces are being held back by inherited biases from when the word ‘manager’ was synonymous with ‘supervisor’. Most managers now understand the value in a coaching approach, and in encouraging employees to take ownership and responsibility for their work – so in many cases the traditional role of a ‘supervisor’ has become redundant.

HR needs to help line managers make a shift to a genuine trust-based workplace, providing evidence that supports this approach and tools to maintain important communication links between staff and management. Recent research by Family Friendly Working Scotland and YouGov showed: ‘Almost nine in ten (87%) leaders surveyed who offer flexible working say it has had a positive impact on their business.’ HR needs to champion curating and sharing survey results such as this, and success stories from within their own business, to evidence the value in flexible working.

Managing tomorrow’s workforce through HR tech

An HR software system that engages with staff, from before they’ve even started their first day, will support flexible working arrangements from the get-go. Online portals, real-time absence management systems, and online performance management all keep managers up to date with their staff’s whereabouts and performance. Using a goals and check-ins tool for instance allows both the manager and the employee to document and then refer back to agreed milestones. These online HR tools help to maintain staff engagement, and at times that work for all parties involved!

The technology needed to overcome hesitations around flexible working arrangements is available right now – it’s on the precipice of being used more widely. Cloud-based modular HR systems give HR and line managers digital solutions to build a flexible workforce that delivers for the business, line managers and their people. Organisations that embrace this technology to engage with workers who’d like/need more flexible working arrangements will be the ones that ultimately win the war for talent – and the hearts and minds of their employees.

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