The workplace is changing due in part to the 24-hour global economy, new technologies, the decline in heavy industry, and the end of the ‘job for life’ culture. Increasingly, workers and employers are looking for flexibility and a more open attitude to working. This can also bring benefits in terms of reducing stress and sickness absence and increasing motivation and retention.
What is ‘flexible working’?
Flexible working is anything that breaks away from the rigid nine-to-five routine, or the fixed hours working pattern that has traditionally dominated working life over the past 150 years. However, flexibility doesn’t only cover working hours, but also:
- days worked;
- location (e.g. home-working);
- the nature of the job contract (e.g. freelance, fixed-term, contract work or temporary).
Flexible working can include a multitude of opportunities:
- Part-time work: This covers anything less than a full working week.
- Flexitime: Flexitime allows workers some control over their working hours by allowing them to vary the time they start and leave work within set limits, and allowing them to store up hours in order to take time off work.
- Job share: In a job share, two people work part-time to cover one whole job. This works well when the two people get on well and support each other. It offers opportunities to hold on to experienced staff who no longer want to work full-time.
- Compressed hours: Employees work longer or shorter days depending on their own needs and the flow of work.
- Part-time return to work pattern: This option might be implemented on medical grounds in order to ease a person back into work after an extended period of sickness absence.
- Shift work: Teams of staff cover demand around the clock. Workers can choose the shifts they work and there may be added opportunities for overtime.
- Annualised hours: Employees are contracted to work a total number of hours within a year but there is flexibility over when the hours are worked. This works particularly well when work flows vary dramatically (e.g. seasonal peaks in agriculture or to allow term-time work for parents).
- Home-working: New technology is increasingly enabling employees to work from home. This could be a regular arrangement or ad hoc according to need.
- Zero hours contracts: These have had a bad press in recent times but they do offer employees and employers a good level of flexibility when managed correctly. Individuals can work when they choose and employers can take on more people when demand is high and release them during quiet periods.
- Career breaks and sabbaticals: These offer individuals the opportunity to take unpaid or paid breaks from work to fulfil an ambition (e.g. travelling) or to meet a family commitment (e.g. caring for a relative), and employers get to keep hold of a valued member of staff.
The pros and cons of flexible working
It is no longer only women with young children who are seen as most likely to be looking for part-time work or flexible arrangements. Millennials are also likely to be looking for flexible work in order to allow them to pursue personal interests outside work, and the benefits of a more flexible approach to work are increasingly understood by employment experts. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, CIPD, has reported that there is a ‘strong link between flexible working, employee engagement and productivity’.
Well-managed flexible working arrangements can offer significant benefits to organisations and workers:
- Enhanced job satisfaction: Happy staff are more likely to be productive during working hours.
- Reductions in sickness absence and presenteeism (people coming to work despite really being too ill to work effectively).
- 24-hour working: Shift working and zero-hour contracts allow businesses to operate around the clock and react quickly to sudden changes in demand for their goods and services. This can make businesses more efficient, save costs and boost productivity.
- Space and cost-saving: With some flexible working arrangements, it is possible to reduce the number of workstations needed because not every member of staff will be at work at the same time. Hot-desking is easily done when employees can work using their laptops and mobile phones, and can save organisations a significant amount of money.
- Reduced stress: Allowing staff to vary their start and finish times, or the days they work, can enable them to balance their various work and private commitments and contribute to a better work-life balance, which may ultimately improve productivity.
- Staff retention: By allowing flexible working, employers can increase their chances of keeping valued members of staff by making it easier for them to fulfil their work and private commitments.
However, there are some potential drawbacks to flexible working from the perspective of employers:
- Management implications: Keeping up with flexible working arrangements, overseeing home-based staff, ensuring that staff are working safely at home (e.g. risk assessments) and ensuring that staff aren’t becoming isolated from the workplace can take more time than having system of set hours and office-based workers.
- Extra staff: By employing part-time staff an organisation may have to employ more individuals to cover workloads, thus increasing training and recruitment costs.
- Shift work: Working late at night or changing shift patterns can upset a person’s body clock. This can cause fatigue and affect productivity.
- Career development: Part-time workers and people working from home may feel disadvantaged in progressing their careers because they are not always in the office.
Support from Fit for Work
Support and guidance about work and health can be sought from Fit for Work, which offers free, online work-related health advice and guidance to anyone looking for advice and support about an existing case of sickness absence, or about issues that may result in sickness absence. Employed people who have been off work due to illness for four weeks or more can be referred for a telephone assessment with a Fit for Work case manager in order to identify all the obstacles preventing the person from returning to work. The Fit for Work case manager can also provide recommendations about how the obstacles can be addressed and to potentially enable an early return to work. Visit the Fit for Work website or call the free telephone advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English) or 0800 032 6233 (Welsh). There is a separate service running in Scotland (0800 019 2211).