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Flexible working may not be the revolution it seems

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At first glance it would seem that the flexible working genie is irreversibly out of the bottle. But is it?

For many, March 2020 and the requirement to work from home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic became the turning point for organisations and employees alike to embrace flexible working at scale. 

Pre-pandemic it was estimated that just 12% of working adults regularly worked from home, but this rose to 44%, which represented the most extensive and rapid shift in working patterns since 1939. 


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Roles previously thought to be ‘office-based only’ had to be undertaken from home, and work got done. The government’s recent consultation on the matter reinforces the view that flexible working is now not just more acceptable but “can bring considerable benefits for employers... removing the invisible restrictions to jobs... fosters a more diverse workforce... leads to improved financial returns for business”.

Throughout the pandemic 44% of employees did not work from home at all (primarily because of the nature of their role) and 46% of employees had little, if any access to flexible working arrangements. 

Research by the CIPD has shown that progress over the last 10 to 15 years in the provision and uptake of flexible work has been very slow, and primarily driven by the use of zero-hours contracts.

Although there has been a substantial and unsurprising rise in working from home in the last two years, there is a risk of conflating working from home and flexible work, and data has shown that the take-up of other flexible work arrangements (job-share, working flexitime, compressed hours, part-time hours, etc) have actually reduced.

At the same time messages from some employers and parts of government have taken a somewhat negative and pejorative slant on the flexible or hybrid approach to work now wanted by many employees. 

Working from home has been described as an aberration; if workers are not seen in the office then they will be gossiped about, and to improve productivity employees need to, to quote MP Oliver Dowden, “get off their Pelotons and back to their desks”.

Concerns have been raised by younger employees that if they work flexibly then they may face barriers to progression, and discussions are starting about a new phenomenon, ‘hybrideeism,’ coming to work for video meetings to prove employees are working.

This seems to suggest that flexibility stigma, the idea that people working flexibly contribute less or are less committed, is still present, despite contradictory evidence showing that flexible workers are more productive, engaged, show high levels of job satisfaction and stay longer.

This could be because some organisations are still of the cultural mindset that you have to be seen to be working and that trust in the employment relationship is lacking, or that there could be a managerial ‘knowhow’ gap if employees start to make their own flexible arrangements. 

For the tide to be turned, directors, HR professionals and line managers need to be skilled up to manage and embrace the positives that flexible work can provide because if they don’t, there is already evidence that they will face recruitment and retention difficulties in the future. 

 

Zofia Bajorek is senior research fellow at The Institute for Employment Studies (IES)

The above piece was first published in the November/December 2021 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe today to have all our latest issue of HR magazine delivered right to your des