The age of the flexible worker

Flexible working can offer a host of benefits to employees, as well as to their companies

When Emma’s first child was born, she knew she could no longer work nine-to-five and commute to an office every day. As a strategy director at a large marketing agency, it was time to change how she worked.

“When I had my first son five years ago, I knew that going back to five days in a stressful senior job wasn’t going be possible,” Emma says. Now she works three days a week, one of which is from home. She decides how she sets her hours and whether she works from home or the office. She’s more productive and creative in her job, and better able to tackle the busy duties of a parent.

Had her company not offered this level of flexibility, she would have left, she says. “I’m a happier employee.”

Emma is part of a growing cohort of workers who want flexibility from their employers. Flexible working is a catch-all term for a host of different ways of working, which includes working from home, part-time work, flexitime and compressed hours. According to a YouGov poll, 89 per cent of British workers believe flexible working would boost their productivity. Companies are also aware of the scale of the issue: a LinkedIn survey of UK businesses found that 75 per cent think allowing employees the flexibility to work remotely and set their own hours is very important.

The benefits of flexible working … include better morale, enabling those skilled employees to be able to work around other life commitments, reduced stress and absenteeism, all leading to reduced costs

- Alison Watson, Business Programme team leader at Arden University

Implementing the processes to facilitate remote working, however, requires buy-in from leadership teams. For many companies, their flexible policies still lag behind. The same LinkedIn survey found that while 57 per cent of companies allow employees to work remotely, it is only for some of the time, while 23 per cent said it is only under special circumstances. As more high-skilled workers view flexibility as a professional line in the sand, what is the cost of inflexibility?

“The benefits of flexible working are vast,” says Alison Watson, Business Programme team leader at Arden University. “They include better morale, enabling those skilled employees to be able to work around other life commitments, reduced stress and absenteeism, all leading to reduced costs.”

Emma did not wish to use her real name in this story as she says her company would not want her to speak publicly about its policies. While her employer is now fully supportive of her needs, she says she had to get the ball rolling herself, by proposing a different way of working.

“I managed that conversation,” she says. “They were very fair and balanced, but part of that was how I handled the conversation.”

Helen Jamieson, founder and managing director of Jaluch – an HR consultancy whose clients include Bupa and Visa – says the issue of flexibility is as much about change management as it is employee trust. “A lot of leaders find it hard to both trust and embrace new ways of working or thinking,” she says. “Ask managers whether they trust staff who are remote workers and you still get many voicing serious concerns about how to successfully manage them.”

Leaders must educate themselves on how flexible working can benefit their business, Ms Jamieson says. They need to “lead from the top”, while at the same time “not ignore the fears and concerns people often have about change”.

Ms Watson agrees that engaging in a flexible working culture requires specific management. “Some employees need structure and discipline in order to function effectively,” she says.

Whether a company is able to offer flexibility in its working practices often depends on how progressive it is in its overall culture. The size of a company plays a role here, as smaller companies have a degree of agility to respond faster to these employee needs. “Sometimes such a process may be seen as easier to implement in less bureaucratic organisations,” Ms Watson says, though she notes that smaller companies face challenges of their own.

“Within a small workforce, flexible working patterns may not be easy to achieve as communication amongst the team and with the customer will be essential and will need to be maintained at all times,” she says. “There will need to be adequate cover during standard working hours.” Technology has played a significant role in addressing these issues, she adds, with the widespread use of online conferencing within many sectors offering a viable solution.

For Ms Jamieson, the size of the company is secondary to the mindset of the leadership team when it comes to determining a flexible working policy. “Flexible working demands that leaders trust their staff and that leaders are able to drop outdated practices in favour of new practices.”

The trend towards flexible working started with women, as working mothers like Emma came back to work and needed to adjust their schedules. Dr Esther Canonico of the London School of Economics’ Department of Management, who studies organisational behaviour and flexible working, says that women joining the UK workforce changed the traditional idea of an employee.

“Women bring with them different values and a different understanding of what the responsibilities are outside of work.”

As broader attitudes towards work-life balance change, however, it’s now not just mothers who are interested in flexible working practices. When Jo Hooper returned from three months off work with anxiety and depression, she needed the flexibility to manage her mental health and return to work slowly. “I was given flexibility and was able to work in the office for two days a week and then three days a week at home to begin with,” she said.

As an ambitious employee in a leadership role, Ms Hooper said she tried making tweaks to the way she worked and lived for years to manage her mental health and thrive at work, but that it just didn’t work. This year, Ms Hooper set up Mad and Sad Club, an initiative to provide training to companies looking to improve employee mental wellbeing.

“I realised that there were lots of simple things that businesses could do to help people struggling and that people didn’t need to be ‘qualified’ or a clinician to do something meaningful about mental health,” she said.

Ms Hooper does not think the solution to dealing with mental health issues at work should be for everyone to become self-employed. “Flexibility is one of the things companies can and should do more of,” she said. “By sticking to this arcane idea that we need to be in an office together for 8 hours a day, we’re stifling creativity and holding people to working standards that aren’t necessary in a modern world.”

For both Emma and Ms Hooper, flexibility is now a talent acquisition and retention issue. They are not alone in seeing flexible working as a staff benefit – according to a survey by the jobs sites Monster, a quarter of British workers would turn down a job offer if they were not able to work from home.

“Being able to manage both work and life commitments is attractive to an employee, especially those that know their potential worth to a company,” Ms Watson says. “Companies that do offer such a process will be more attractive to work for, therein attracting the talented staff they’re looking for.”

For Emma, the ability to work flexibly is now simply non-negotiable. “I will now never, ever work for a company that doesn’t let me work like this,” she says. “It’s a hygiene factor for me now.”