With yet another school holiday upon us, the struggle to juggle working and childcare rears its head again and with it, the issue of flexible working.
With school children getting an average of 13 weeks holiday a year – that is 65 working days, compared with 28 days (including bank holidays) for most private-sector employees, it is not surprising this is an issue. For many working parents, this can lead them to question their priorities and in the worst cases, to quit their jobs. Offering flexible working can help alleviate some of these issues, and in fact, has been shown to increase productivity and make workers happier and healthier. It’s a win-win for all.
The way people work has changed a lot over the past decade and the desire for flexibility is no longer just the preserve of working parents. Improvements to technology have made it easier for individuals to work from remote locations and an increased tendency to spread teams around the globe means that 9-5 working is not always necessary. Moreover, Millennials, who account for the largest proportion of workers, have been reported to value flexibility over remuneration, meaning that if businesses want to target the biggest talent pool, they need to be open to flexible working.
As a result, businesses are increasingly providing their employees with the option to decide where, when and how they would like to work and the benefits are being seen on both sides. According to IWG’s 2019 Global Workplace Survey, flexible working could save 115 hours of commuting time a year – equal to 14 million working days. Given the large percentage of workers who cite commuting as the worst part of their day, working closer to home is becoming an increasingly popular option.
A study by the London School of Economics (LSE) found that in addition to increasing productivity, flexible working also helps to reduce absenteeism and enhances employee engagement and loyalty. It also significantly widens the pool of applicants for vacant roles, as well as helping to retain the existing skilled staff.
As with anything, there are also possible disadvantages. For some, the line between home and work life can become blurred, leading to an inability to switch off. For others, being given the opportunity to work flexibly can fuel a feeling that they owe the company more. There is also the possibility of fewer benefits and lack of career progression prompted by the reduced hours and minimal face-time in the office. Furthermore, missing out on the camaraderie and social aspect of the office environment can have a significant impact on some employees and leave them feeling both uninspired and isolated.
What’s more, one school of thought believes that flexible or part-time working is responsible for a significant element of the gender pay gap. Women who work part-time tend not to progress so far or as fast in their careers and earn significantly less over their working life than men in full-time roles.
For the employer, giving employees the option to work flexibly is effectively a gamble. After all, what works for one individual doesn’t necessarily work for another. Allowing one employee to work flexibly can lead to resentment amongst others who feel they too should be given this opportunity. In reality however, the success of flexible working depends on the role concerned and the mentality of the individual themselves. If not carefully managed, flexible working can lead to inefficiencies and a drop in quality of work, but with the right management and communication the benefits mentioned above can work for all sides.
As already mentioned, flexible working is no longer just about parents working. It concerns anyone who wishes to work part time, job share or work alternative hours in order to fit around other commitments or simply to improve their work-life balance. (UK employment law stipulates that anyone who has been with their employer for more than 26 weeks has the right to request flexible working. The employer however doesn’t have to grant it.)
While significant progress has been made - more than half of UK workers work flexibly in some way, according to a study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), there is still a lot of unmet demand. The same study also found that 68% of employees would like to work flexibly in a way that is not currently available.
The key to achieving this is about more than individuals requesting flexible working. Instead, there needs to be a change in the habits and mindset of many organisations. There is plenty of evidence to showcase the benefits, it’s now time for society to acknowledge them and challenge the preconceptions about working practices.
by Claire Shoesmith
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