Is there a business case for flexible working?

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For employees the potential benefit of flexible working is obvious: a better work-life balance. But what’s in it for businesses?

The publication of the latest Workplace Employment Relations Study (WERS) data provides a great opportunity to assess the impact of flexible working by looking at the views of employers and employees.

WERS includes information on management relations and performance on nearly 3,000 businesses in Great Britain, collected from the most senior manager with responsibility for personnel matters as well as from a sample of their employees.

What do managers think?

Nearly four-fifths of senior managers report providing some flexible or alternative arrangements, including part-time working. Flexible arrangements are more common in the public sector and all types of flexible arrangements are also more common among larger organisations.

Although flexible working is widely available, 76% of managers believe that it is up to individual employees to balance their work and family responsibilities, an increase from 65% in 2004.

There also appears to be a mismatch between the types of flexible arrangements available and the types popular with employees. The most commonly offered flexible arrangements are part-time working, offered at just over half of all workplaces and variations of set working hours, offered at just under half of all workplaces.

In contrast, the recent work-life balance survey of employees showed that the arrangements most popularly taken up by employees, are flexitime and working from home, yet these are only offered at 34% and 30% of workplaces, respectively.

The business case

So what about the business case? WERS allows us to test whether there is a link between the availability of flexible arrangements and managers' assessment of organisations' financial performance in relation to the industry average.

We found that after allowing for the effect of size and sector, the number and type of flexible working arrangements available is not significantly related to better than average financial performance.

So based on managers' assessment of financial performance there doesn't appear to be a business case for the provision of flexible arrangements.

Other benefits

Look beyond financial performance however and the benefits are clear. Employees working in organisations where flexible working arrangements are available are more likely to describe relations between managers and employees as good or very good, and more likely to think that management is sincere in attempting to understand employees' views, deal with employees honestly and treat employees fairly.

And when it comes to going 'the extra mile', it is those who actually work flexibly who are more willing to give more back. The work-life balance survey shows that those who regularly work from home are more likely to work long hours. Employees working flexibly are also most likely to strongly agree that they use their own initiative to carry out tasks not required of them.

Other research has shown a robust link between job quality and worker wellbeing, with higher wellbeing among employees with greater autonomy over how they do their work and among those with greater level of support from their line manager and this is also borne out in WERS. Employees who report that they work flexibly or have flexible arrangements available to them are both more likely to report that they are very satisfied with the amount of influence they have over their job and less likely to say that their job makes them feel miserable.

So what's the problem then?

Half of managers in organisations that provide no flexible working arrangements feel it is incompatible with the nature of the work or operating hours of the organisation while nearly a third think it would put pressure on other employees and managers. In many cases, these may well be valid concerns. However, over a quarter also report that there are no constraints on them providing flexible arrangements yet they do not offer any.

As the positive employee outcomes are not spontaneously translating into enhanced business performance, this raises questions about how flexible arrangements are currently being implemented. Maybe it's not enough to make different arrangements available without considering how they can work for the employee, the team and the organisation as a whole and then, importantly, making the changes to management style and practice required to make the arrangement work.

Jenny Chanfreau (pictured) is senior researcher at NatCen Social Research

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