Valerie Bond
Posted on 16 Mar 2021

Should Flexible Working be 'Normalised'?

On 5 March, the Minister of Women and Equalities, Liz Truss, called for flexible working to become part and parcel of daily life. This includes allowing employees to have the option to work part-time/ flexi time, work from home and job share. Whilst this seems beneficial to the workforce, are there any benefits for employers in increasing flexibility?

The Call for Flexible Working

With more people working flexibly due to Covid-19, the Equalities minister has said that now is the time to offer flexible working as a standard option for employees.

Research from the Government-backed Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) and Indeed, the job website, found that, where flexible working arrangements are offered, job applications increase by up to 30%.  This was the largest research carried out of its kind in the UK, analysing nearly 20 million applications.

Currently, flexible working is usually requested by employees, however, Liz Truss explains that by "making flexible working the norm, rather than something employees have to specially request, will help open up opportunities to people regardless of their sex or location".

By increasing the flexibility of jobs, it is hoped that employment will be enhanced in areas away from major cities and provide greater opportunities for women who are twice as likely to work flexibly as men. 

Minister for Women, Baroness Berridge, commented that "we continue to see the benefits of flexible working, now more than ever. These findings add to existing evidence showing how both men and women stand to benefit from working from home and returners programmes".

What are the Benefits of Flexible Working?

The Government Equalities Office published its findings in a paper "Encouraging employers to advertise jobs as flexible". It recognises that many individuals would prefer to work flexibly (including 93% of non-workers) and that this desire has only increased through the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, currently, only 22% of jobs are advertised as flexible. Nevertheless, once in a job, 60% of workers end up working flexibly. This further illustrates the demand for flexible working.

The paper explored some reasons as to why employers may be unwilling to advertise jobs as flexible, when they are, in fact, willing to offer flexibility. This included a "status quo bias which favours full-time work and ambiguity aversion which may discourage consideration of a range of flexible working patterns".

The benefits of flexible working may be clear for employees, who are able to work around other commitments, such as childcare. However, what are the benefits for employers when it comes to offering flexible working?

There are a number of benefits that can come from offering employees flexibility in their working, the increase in employee morale and engagement being one. This can have ricocheting effects in reducing employee turnover and absenteeism. A survey carried out by CIPD found that "flexible workers are more likely to be engaged which yields significant advantages for employers – potentially generating 43% more revenue and improving performance by 20%, compared to disengaged employees."

Furthermore, CIPD's research found that flexible working allows companies to adapt to fluctuating market demand and increase competitiveness.

Implementing Flexible Working

Covid has meant that flexible working has naturally increased due to necessity. However, as people begin to return to work, employers may need to consider updating their contracts and policies to enable their staff to continue to work flexibly.

Currently, employees who have accumulated at least 26 weeks' continuous employment are eligible to make one written flexible working request in any 12 month period. Once received, an employer is required to deal with the request in a reasonable manner, which will likely involve arranging meetings with the employee to discuss their request and any concerns. An employer has three months to respond from the date of the request, unless both parties agree to extend this time limit.

Given that many employees have been working from home for the majority of the past year, there may be an assumption that they have already successfully proven to their employer that home working is possible. In some cases, this may be correct. However, some employers may seek a return to normality in terms of office hours and presenteeism for various reasons. An employer who takes this course of action will need to produce evidence as to why continuing to allow the extent of flexibility currently in place would not work for the business in the long term.

Our article "How should employers handle flexible working requests following lockdown?" provides further information on flexible working requests, which will likely increase as lockdown eases.

Final Notes for Employers

As we come out of lockdown, businesses will need to continue to review their methods of working. It will be worth considering whether allowing staff to continue to work flexibly is something they are able to provide and whether this will remain beneficial to them as an organisation.

This article is for information purposes only and is not a substitute for legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Please contact Valerie Bond to discuss any issues you are facing.