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Flexible Working

Working in a Way That Suits Employee Needs

A man leaving the office saying goodbye to co-workers, illustrating flexible working.

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Flexible working can benefit both employers and employees.

Flexible working provides an alternative approach to traditional working arrangements. Gone are the normal nine-to-five hours. Instead, employees get more choices about when, where and how they work.

The popularity of flexible working has grown significantly since the 2020 pandemic, which forced many organizations to introduce home-working and hybrid-working models to ensure business continuity.

But, as well as providing organizations with flexibility, this approach has a number of benefits for employees, too – for example, higher job satisfaction and improved work-life balance. This has resulted in a rising number of employers offering flexible working to attract and retain top talent.

In this article, we examine what flexible working is, how to ask for it, and how to apply it successfully in your organization.

What Is Flexible Working?

Flexible working is any work pattern that differs significantly from the traditional, office-based 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. standard. It can involve a variety of different work arrangements, including:

  • Home or remote working – working at home full time, with little or no requirement to work in an office.
  • Hybrid working – working at home on some days, and in the office on others, depending on your needs.
  • Working part-time hours at a "pro rata" salary.
  • Flexible working hours, or shift patterns that fit around other responsibilities, such as caregiving or study.
  • Working compressed hours – working your usual hours in fewer days, at a full-time salary.
  • Flexitime – allowing you to fit your working hours into agreed core times.
  • Job sharing.
  • Staggered hours – shifting your start and finish times on different days.
  • Time off in lieu – working overtime one day, for example, then gaining this time back on another day without officially booking it as vacation.
  • Annualized hours – arranging your working time around the number of hours to be worked per year, rather than over a week.

In the following section, we'll cover the main types of flexible-working arrangements in more detail.

Home/Remote Working

Working from home is exactly what it says: work carried out by employees in their own homes. Working from home or remote working can have many benefits. It can help people to enjoy a better work-life balance, reduce commuting time, and help people to work more productively and autonomously.

According to research, 59 percent of U.S. workers whose jobs can mainly be done from home work from home all or most of the time. The majority (83 percent) of study participants said that they were already working from home before the 2020 pandemic. [1]

The same study revealed that, despite lockdown restrictions being largely lifted, most people are still opting to work from home, with 61 percent choosing to stay at home despite offices reopening.

The popularity of home working has not gone unnoticed by businesses either, with many now offering home working as a standard benefit to help retain and attract talent. However, home working is still only suited to some industries – in particular, professional, technical- and information-based organizations. People working in the manufacturing, construction or logistics sectors will likely be unable to work at home to do their jobs successfully.

Hybrid Working

Hybrid working is a combination of home working and office working. If you have a hybrid-working arrangement, you can essentially work from anywhere, whether that's in the office, at home, or even in the coffee shop down the street.

Similar to working from home, hybrid-working models have grown in popularity since the pandemic. Many businesses are keen to help people continue to work flexibly, while supporting face-to-face working, too. According to a recent survey from Gallup, 42 percent of U.S. workers now have a hybrid schedule, compared to a third before the pandemic. [2]

Job Sharing

Job sharing means that two (or more) people share the duties of one full-time job, each working part-time.

Each job-sharer must have access to the same systems and information, and have the skills to carry out the job on their own if necessary. Good communication and trust between the job sharers is vital.

Flexible Hours

A flexible-hours or flexitime scheme allows staff to break free from the traditional nine-to-five schedule. This means that if you start early one day, you can take this time off at the end of the same day, or another day. You can do this regularly or occasionally as it suits you.

Flexible hours are particularly suitable for people with caregiving responsibilities, and for those who regularly work with team members, vendors or clients who are based in different time zones.

Compressed Hours

A compressed-hours schedule involves working the usual number of hours in the working week, but in fewer days. For example, an employee contracted to work a 40-hour week might work four 10-hour days and take the fifth day off, rather than five eight-hour days.

A pilot scheme launched recently in the U.K. has taken the idea of a four-day work week one step further, by allowing employees from 70 companies across a wide range of sectors to work four days a week at full pay. The scheme will run for six months, and organizers will work with participating businesses to monitor productivity and employee wellbeing, as well as the impact on the environment and gender equality. [3]

Note:

Flexible working is not the same as working flexibly, which is the ability to adjust to short-term change quickly and calmly. This should be possible – and desirable – in any working arrangement.

What Are the Benefits of Flexible Working?

Flexible working can benefit both employees and their organizations, as long as it's considered carefully in advance.

How Flexible Working Benefits Employees

For an employee, flexible working has many benefits. It can help you to balance your work with your other responsibilities, such as caring for children or older family members.

It can also give you autonomy over your work, which can increase engagement and job satisfaction (see our article on Pink's Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose Framework for more on this). Being able to schedule work in a way that suits you can help you to manage your time better, improve your work-life balance, and reduce stress.

Having control over where and when you work allows you to play to your strengths, particularly if you work better at certain times of the day. It enables you to build self-care into your daily routine, making it easier to incorporate exercise into your day, for instance.

Financial benefits can include being able to schedule travel on public transport at cheaper times, traveling less, or not having to commute at all.

How Flexible Working Benefits Organizations

In recent years, flexible working has become a key factor in the ability of organizations to attract and retain talented staff. Research by EY has revealed that most employees (80 percent) want to work remotely at least two days a week. In addition, 83 percent of employers say that the pandemic has accelerated demand for more extensive rewards packages, encompassing compensation, wellbeing, flexible benefits, and annual leave. [4]

Flexible-working policies can significantly improve staff retention and attraction, reduce hiring costs, and boost employee engagement. Employers can also recruit from a wider pool of talent, as potential employees don't necessarily have to live within commuting distance.

Flexible-working arrangements can also reduce office-operating costs, as not everyone is in the office all of the time.

Benefits to Society

Flexible working can also have environmental benefits – for example, by reducing pollution due to a reduction in travel. In addition, more people can take on a wider range of jobs, in different locations. Flexible working also supports the inclusion of carers, older people, and people with disabilities or chronic illnesses in the workforce.

The Pitfalls of Flexible Working

Flexible working needs careful implementation and management to be successful. Although it has many benefits, it has potential problems, too.

Communication can be a problem when people are working in different places, or when their office hours don't overlap. So it's essential to have the right systems in place for tracking tasks and building relationships with your co-workers. Read our article Working in a Virtual Team for more advice on this.

It's also easy for misunderstandings to happen on team calls or in virtual meetings, so make sure that you know how to run remote meetings effectively.

When you're working from home, it's vital to minimize distractions. It can be all too easy for the line between family time and work time to become blurred, for example. And when you're away from co-workers and managers, it can be easy to fall into bad behaviors such as procrastination. Make sure that you have a routine and a daily To-Do List to keep you on track.

Employers need to consider how they'll fulfill their duty of care to their remote workers – for example, ensuring that they have a safe work environment and are given the appropriate training.

Specific flexible-working arrangements, such as working compressed hours or the introduction of a four-day work week (at full pay), also need to be thought about carefully before being introduced. Switching from eight-hour days to ten-hour days (if you work a compressed schedule) can be difficult to do. Powering through long days can lead to burnout (despite the additional day off), and you still need to make sure that you have the time to fit in other commitments at home, such as childcare.

A four-day work week also requires careful planning to ensure that you can fit in all your tasks on the days that you're in. You'll also need to communicate with your team members to let them know when you are and aren't available, and to prevent work from coming to a stand-still while you're away.

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How to Implement Flexible Working

1. Be Aware of Regulations

Regulations relating to flexible working can vary according to your location. In the U.S., there's no legal requirement for employers to consider requests for flexible working, or to offer it.

In the U.K., employers are required by law to consider any request for flexible working, as long as the staff member making the request has been with the organization for 26 weeks or more. Employers don't have to grant the request, but they do have to show that they've considered it fairly.

2. Make Flexible-Working Policies Fair for All

If you're managing a team or an organization, flexible-working arrangements that you agree with staff members must be fair to them and to other team members. If you make flexible working available to one team member, then it's only fair that it's available to all.

If you don't do this, conflict may arise, particularly if some teams within your organization (for example, Sales and Marketing) are given the option of flexible working, while others (production-line workers, for instance) aren't.

There may be business reasons for this disparity, so any move like this will need to be handled sensitively. Consult senior managers or your HR or People team before you make any promises or commitments.

3. Be Mindful of the Pros and Cons

When a team member proposes a flexible-working arrangement, or you think that it would benefit the way your team works, begin with an informal conversation. This should cover the needs of the person or team, the likely benefits to the organization, and any potential problems with the arrangement.

When you have a good general idea of how the flexible arrangement could work, you can hold a formal meeting to focus on specific issues, requirements and contractual changes. Aim to nail down the details of how the arrangement will benefit the business, and how you'll manage it.

Ideally, a commitment to flexible working should be rolled out across the whole organization. Even if the precise terms of the flexible working vary between teams or individuals, there should be a clear policy available for all staff to consult.

4. Introduce a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE)

ROWE workplaces delegate responsibility for targets entirely to team members. In a ROWE, you're measured by your performance, results or output, not by the hours that you work. You have a high degree of autonomy over your projects, and the freedom to choose when and how you'll meet your goals.

ROWE policies can run alongside and support flexible-working arrangements. And they can be formalized into a set of principles or promises to be adhered to, for the mutual benefit of employee and employer. Such arrangements are generally based on good communication, trust, and a few absolutes about how targets and tasks will be delegated and met.

Seeking a Flexible-Working Arrangement

If you're an employee seeking to work flexibly, ensure that the case you make for the change is clearly thought out. It isn't enough simply to say that you'd quite like Fridays off!

You need to make your pitch SMART:

  • Be Specific about the sort of flexible arrangement you're looking for.
  • Make the benefits Measurable, by showing how your arrangement will benefit both you and your team.
  • Demonstrate how it's Achievable, particularly in relation to its effects on others.
  • It also needs to Realistic and properly resourced.
  • Finally, make it Time-bound by showing how it will work long-term, and suggest a trial period.

Anticipate any potential problems with the arrangement as well. For instance, have clear proposals for how you'll handle communications with your colleagues. Also, think in detail about how your co-workers might have to adapt their working practices to accommodate what you want to do.

Key Points

Flexible working is any form of working arrangement that deviates from your organization's standard policy. It can involve working from home, flexible hours or flexitime, compressed hours, or an arrangement based on results achieved, rather than hours worked (a Results Only Work Environment).

Flexible working can offer many benefits to employees – for example, by allowing them to manage their own time and the location of their work; providing a better work-life balance; and giving them greater autonomy.

For organizations, flexible working can help to attract and retain staff, improve productivity, boost motivation, and reduce office costs. But employers also need to ensure that flexible-working policies are implemented fairly and consistently – and that they hold employees accountable for managing their workloads effectively.

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