The reasons why flexible working works

It is widely adopted that flexible working makes good business sense. But, there remains a refusal in many organisations to allow staff to adopt such patterns of working. The Chartered Management Institute's head of policy, Rob Wall, discusses the issue

At CMI, we know that flexible working is good business sense. It helps attract and retain talent, improves employee engagement, reduces absenteeism, boosts productivity and drives up business performance. That’s why thousands of employers across the UK actively promote and encourage flexible working.

But what exactly is flexible working, and how widespread is it? How exactly does flexible working improve performance and increase job satisfaction? And what more can be done to encourage managers and employers to adopt flexible working practices in their organisations? Well, if you want to know more, then read on!

What is flexible working?
Flexible working can mean many things: working from home, working compressed hours, working term-time hours, part-time or flexi-time working. It has now become an umbrella term to describe working patterns that fall outside the traditional 9-to-5 office hours. The government describes flexible working as: ‘a way of working that suits an employee’s needs, for example having flexible start and finish times, or working from home’.

CMI research shows that the most common forms of flexible working are the ability to schedule work flexibly, the ability to work from home and working part-time. And we know that flexible working is more common now than ever. For example, in the 1950s, the proportion of employees working part-time was very low. By the 1980s, around one in five employees were working part-time. Today, this has risen to around one in four.

The take up of flexible working practices varies across sectors and professions. We know, for example, that employees in the public sector are more likely to work flexibly that their counterparts in the private sector. CMI research also shows that managers are less likely to work flexibly than the people they manage. In organisations where flexible working practices like working part-time, job sharing or working compressed hours are available, most managers are not choosing, or do not feel able, to take up these forms of flexible working.

What are the benefits of flexible working?
There are many benefits to flexible working, for the individual, for the employer and for the wider economy. It helps people into in the labour market, it improves employee engagement and it boosts productivity.

Attracting and retaining talent
We know there is a real demand for flexible working. Research suggests that nearly nine in every 10 people want to work flexibly. So offering flexible working makes employers more attractive to candidates when hiring and provides recruiters with access to a wider pool of talent. At a time when unemployment is at a 40 year low, more businesses than ever understand the importance of attracting as wide a range of applicants as possible.

Flexible working also helps retain staff and plays a key role in helping to close the gender pay gap. Research shows that the reduced participation of women in the labour market is the single biggest driver of the gender pay gap. Nine in 10 of those who take time out of work for caring responsibilities are women, and women are three times more likely to work part-time than men.

Flexible working allows women, and indeed all parents, to balance work and child caring responsibilities and means that employers are not losing talented female employees. This benefit of flexible working alone should be a wake-up call for the thousands of businesses that saw their gender pay gap increase over 2018/2019!

Improving employee engagement
People want to work flexibly. So offering flexible working can have a real impact on employee engagement. Research shows that those who work flexibly have a higher level of job satisfaction, are more committed and are more likely to go the extra mile than those who do not work flexibly.

One way flexible working improves job satisfaction is by allowing employees to manage their work/life balance and by supporting employees’ physical and mental well-being. CMI research shows that long working hours can have a direct impact on the well-being of managers. In our research over half of managers said that working hours have a negative effect on their stress levels. Stress was nearly four times more common among those who worked long hours.

Improving productivity
Flexing working is good for business. Many employees and employers agree that flexible working practices can improve performance and productivity, at both individual and firm level. For example, nine in 10 employees report that flexible working helps improve their productivity at work. And CMI research shows that around half of managers report that flexible working makes for a more productive workplace.

How can we promote flexible working?
So flexible working works. But why then aren’t more of us working flexibly? Why, according to some research, are only one in 10 jobs advertised as being flexible?

Despite the evidence, some employers still cite concerns about flexible working: some fear employees will abuse the system, some are concerned about the reaction of customers and clients, and others worry about the bureaucracy involved in setting up a flexible working system and about a loss of productivity.

There are also barriers which prevent employees from taking up flexible working. For example, it is around five years since the government extended the statutory right to request flexible working to all employees with 26 weeks’ continuous employment. This means that most employees can now ask their employer to work flexibly. However, awareness and understanding of the legislation remain lows. Recent CMI research revealed that only one in four managers fully understood that the statutory right to request flexible working allowed employees to request a change in hours, time or location of work.

In some workplaces there is also still a stigma attached to flexible working. Some studies show that around one third of all workers identify a ‘flexibility stigma’ to flexible working. This ‘flexibility stigma’ arises from an attitude that flexible workers are less productive than full time colleagues and contribute less. Because of this many managers are concerned that they will be penalised for working flexibly, and less likely to get a pay rise or be promoted.

What can managers do to tackle these barriers?
At CMI we believe that managers play a critical role in promoting flexible working and in making flexible working really work. So here’s our advice for all line managers.

- Line managers need to be equipped and empowered. They need understand the statutory right to request flexible working, and make sure they are familiar with their employer’s policies on flexible working. They should also ask for training to ensure they have the skills and knowledge to make flexible working a success.

- They should be proactive. They shouldn’t wait for someone to ask if they can work flexibly, but should proactively initiate a conversation about flexible working with their teams.

- They should call out bad practice. Line managers play a key role in changing attitudes and should challenge any behaviours or comments that suggest those who work flexibly are somehow less productive. They should challenge the ‘flexibility stigma’.

- They should be a role model. Line managers should consider working flexibly themselves, and champion flexible working practices across their organisation.

Further Information:

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