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By Dr Zara Nanu

I don’t think many of us understood what flexible work was until March 2020. Many of us in the ERP space, with roles that could have been done flexibly and remotely for years still saw the 9-5 as the way to operate within the framework of a cubicle in the office. Flexible working was still something parents did – mostly women – to fit the school run in between meeting deadlines and taking calls.

At Gapsquare we’ve been conducting research into flexible working that has revealed an incredible shift that is happening for employers, whether they are ready or not.

“Flexible working has been implemented in such a way as to blur the line between home duties and work duties”

A flexible working approach from the word go

The most useful definition of flexible working I have seen is from Timewise, who define flexible work as ‘any kind of working pattern that doesn’t fit into the traditional 9-5, five day week – that doesn’t include zero-hours or temping contracts.’

The right to request flexible work has been statutory in the UK since 2014, but research by Timewise says only 11 percent of jobs with salaries of above £20,000 are advertised as being open to flexible working arrangements. And even then – the interpretation of flexible working differs. Beyond recruitment, a Censuswide survey also stressed a gap in uptake; 40 percent of employees aren’t formally offered flexible work. COVID has shown us that we should be aiming to offer flexible working to 10 out of 10 employees.

Flexible working – stepping into the light

There have always been many reasons why employees sought flexible work options, but the main reason has always been work-life balance. As it stands, social indicator research shows that there isn’t yet an empirical link between work-life balance and flexible work. They are not inherently one and the same. Instead of facilitating balance, flexible working has been implemented in such a way as to blur the line between home duties and work duties. This is something I wish I could write on the agendas for board meetings around the country: letting people work around their home life, also means letting work into their home life unless you do it right.

Whose policy is it anyway?

At the moment we are seeing that the high female uptake of flexible roles (and low male uptake) is reinforcing gender roles. ONS data shows that most flexible working arrangements have a disproportionately higher uptake from women than men.

Recent EHRC research finds that 51 percent of women report disadvantages from requesting FWAs – this can come in the form of having fewer opportunities or personal development options. Similarly, part-time work is often included under the banner of flexible work. As most of it is in low-paid, stereotypically female occupations, this results in women being critically underpaid under calls for flexibility.

The EU Gender Equality Index 2019 highlights that women are less likely to be able to move from part-time to full-time jobs. The pool of men working part-time is considerably shallower, yet their opportunities for moving to full-time jobs are higher in comparison.

“….at the end of the day, it takes effort to build holistic flexible working practices, but the returns in employee loyalty and productivity are invaluable”

But what can companies do?

Current new working arrangements are making flexible working the norm. This means it must be the norm for all employees. An employer’s job now is to scale flexible work in a work/life balance mindset. This is a necessity in a world where your children might literally step into your office whilst you’re on an important call. 

Here are some tips for creating flexible working that we have picked up:

• Start by advertising flexibility in job vacancies. Many companies do not advertise roles as flexible, and post-lockdown with rising unemployment, those entering the workforce will particularly look for flexibility. Instead of a vague statement on flexible work, job advertisements should cover what types of flexibility is available for specific roles. For example, not every role can be done remotely, but may be available for job sharing or compressed hours. Businesses can show their commitment to ensuring flexible working by highlighting case studies or role models during the recruitment process.

• Get past cumbersome policies. We need to move beyond old practices around flexible working. With times as they are, flexible working is necessary from day one for new employees and should not be held back by old fashioned policies.  Employers need to be more adaptive and engaged with a changing environment and consider requests for flexible working a priority issue, crucial to employee success.

• Communication is key. While firms have seen an increase in online communication – daily team meetings, informal catch-ups, buddy programmes etc – they note that it does not fully replace physical communication in the workplace. A blended approach allows workers who prefer face-to-face communication to have it in the office, while those who need flexibility can choose their own arrangements.

At the end of the day, it takes effort to build holistic flexible working practices, but the returns in employee loyalty and productivity are invaluable. During lockdown, there has been a 25 percent increase in productivity through work from home arrangements – this increase is higher for those without caring responsibilities. Now the challenge is to carry through with best practices from the crisis. As the amount of employees working flexibly will likely increase by 45 percent, employers cannot ignore the need for flexible work any longer. Gapsquare has developed guidance on implementing flexible work throughout companies’ talent pipeline – from recruitment, to retention, up to progression. This not only addresses the immediate issue of COVID, but also seeks to build long-term progress. The report is available for purchase on our website.