· 7 min read · Features

Flexible working: Research - Carry on regardless

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Research produced for HR magazine finds the recession isn't changing employee views on flexible working. It's their right and they will continue to exercise it. Peter Crush reports.

The whys are wherefores of offering the right to request flexible working in a downturn might be a hot topic of debate between government and business lobby groups, but for employees on the ground things seem a lot more simple - flexible working is their right, and they are going to continue to request it, regardless of whether we are in a recession or not.

This is the surprise finding of exclusive research produced for this magazine by pollster Harris Interactive. In January we asked Harris Interactive to survey adults in full-time employment who are between 20 and 40 years old - the age group Working Families says has the most need to work flexibly - about their attitudes to flexible working. Some of the questions were around the current economic downturn and whether this would make them refrain from asking for flexible working in favour of being 'seen to be seen' in the office. But it seems the stoical great British working public are not deterred.

According to the research, 44% of our 553 respondents said the economic climate would not make any difference to whether or not they would ask for flexible working, with a further 20% saying they would continue to ask as before. Just 14% said it would be better to be seen to be in the office all the time.

The findings are a comforting sign that employees won't be bullied into coming to work, just to be visible, rather than working the way they want to. Among those that had actually requested to work flexibly within the past year we asked whether they had been pressurised to return to the office sooner than they would have wanted to. Just 13% said yes, and an overwhelming 62% said pressure to be seen had not changed anything about how they asked for flexible working. A mere 8% said they had reconsidered requesting it for fear of losing their job.

The results clearly show employees do not treat asking for flexible working as something they should be scared of. Catherine Gallagher, director of SME HR outsourcing company P3 People Management, says this shows just how confident employees are about requesting flexible working: "We've seen rises in the numbers requesting flexible working of all sorts. Successful employers are recognising that they can actually use flexible working not only to control costs but increase productivity. No matter how many times research like yours says more people want flexible working, management still seems to shy away from it."

According to Gallagher, employees are definitely aware of their rights. But could our results simply be a show of bravado - that these results are what staff say they would do, but might not in reality? It is certainly true that the majority of our respondents have not asked for flexible working within the past year (66%). The rest have all asked for it between once a year (4%) and once a month (6%). That said, though, the largest group (8%) all ask for flexible working at least once a month, so it may well be that their experience of asking for it and having it granted has become procedural and normal. These are the converted.

One thing that is certain is that our panel appears to have a good understanding of the flexible working agenda. More than a third (34%), for example, say they understand that currently it is unfair that some of their colleagues can work flexibly while others cannot. It is a far more grown-up attitude than other reports, which suggest colleagues resent their fellow members of staff who work flexibly when they do not. "It gave me a good feeling that employees do appreciate colleagues' needs to work flexibly," says Sarah Williams-Gardener, director of Opportunity Now. "Employees accept that the culture at works needs to be based on performance rather than presenteeism. If anything, I'd like to see the term 'flexible working' changed to 'agile working', as this is a better descriptor of what it is."

What staff do not like is the attitude they believe management still has towards flexible working. We found 19% of staff thought bosses still want to see people at their desks all the time, regardless of how productive they were. A further 23% believe their bosses think flexible working is a way for employees to slacken off. Females were more likely to say bosses want them in the office, and males were more likely to say flexible working was seen by bosses as an excuse to slack off.

Given these views, it is possible employees' strong resolve to continue asking for flexible working - even in a downturn - could reflect more a mood of militancy (they're going to ask for it because they know bosses don't like it), rather than the economic situation per se. However, employers should see these results as a clear sign that employees will not be brow-beaten over the issue of being able to chose to work flexibly. Nearly a quarter (22%) of our sample said they would feel 'cheated' if their work-life balance tipped too heavily towards work.

According to Stephen Benyon, managing director of ntl:Telewest Business, management should recognise this sentiment. "Assuming that flexible working will automatically lead to a dip in workforce productivity is harmful, as it risks sending out the message that business is behind the times in adopting new working practices," he says. "Managers should be focusing on evaluating the potential benefits of a healthy and successful flexible working culture rather than dismissing these ideas out of hand."

Jackie Orme, chief executive of the CIPD, says the research highlights the case that business still does not see flexible working as something that makes sound business sense. "Too many commentators and business bodies present flexible working as a clash of interests. But all our evidence shows that flexible working is good for employers and employees alike." She adds: "Part-time and flexible workers are happier, more engaged with their work, and therefore more likely to perform better and be productive, which is just as important in a downturn as in the good times - if not more so. Offering flexible working is one way of making sure you maintain that all-important engagement."

One finding is a cause for concern, though. Companies still evidently have a lot to do in terms of getting the message out that they offer flexible working. Only 54% of our respondents thought their company allowed them to ask for flexible working, while 27% said they were not sure they had ever been told about it by bosses. Employers have a duty to tell their employees that some of them at least have the right to request flexible working, but Gallagher thinks too many do not want to advertise this fact: "More employees now have the right to request, and numbers will increase from next month. But unfortunately many employers don't go out of their way to tell staff about it because of fear of being deluged. The onus is still on the employee to request it, but my view is that bosses should at least offer those making a request a trial period to test if flexible working has the benefits being promised."

THE RESULTS IN DETAIL

- 8% overall fear losing their jobs in the current economic climate if they ask for flexible working. But this rises to 10% among those with children, to 11% among those aged 20-29 and 13% from the DE socio-economic class

- 19% of staff overall thought bosses want to see people in the office at all times. This increases to 21% among AB-class staff and to 23% and 24% from people in Scotland and Yorkshire respectively

- 8% of our sample said they request flexible working once a month. This rises to 19% of those living in London. DE-class workers are most likely to ask for flexible working at least once a month

- 14% of overall respondents said it was better to be seen in the office than request flexible working. This rose to 28% among those living in the South West and to 29% among the C2 class of worker

Given the downturn, are you less likely to ask for flexible working?
44% - no, the economic climate makes no difference
22% - not sure
14% - yes, as it's better to be seen in the office
20% - no, I'll continue to ask

Of those who worked flexibly in the past year
8% - had reconsidered asking for fear of losing their job
13% - had returned sooner than they wanted to
17% - not sure
62% - had changed nothing about how they asked to work flexibly

Which of the following reflects your boss's view on flexible working?
27% - said their boss feels flexible working works for the organisation
and economy
31% - not sure
19% - said their boss wants to see people at desks, regardless of
productivity
23% - said their boss still thinks flexible working means employees
slack off

To your knowledge, does your company allow you to ask for flexible
working?
54% - said yes
27% - said not sure - never been told
19% - said no

SARAH BOND, head of diversity, KPMG

Do you think employees treat the ability to request flexible working as a right and they are not scared of requesting it?

Employees request flexible working in order to achieve a better balance between their work and their out-of-work lives, and the need for balance doesn't necessarily lessen in harder economic times. Employees are able to tell when an employer is genuinely committed to flexible working, and it is not something that is offered only in the good times. In that sense I'm not surprised HR magazine finds two thirds of people said the economic situation would make no difference.

Would you have expected more staff to think that it's better to be seen in the office rather than be working at home during an economic downturn?

I totally understand that people might feel like that, of course. Taking us as an example, lots of our people spend most of their time out with clients but they are very used to building relationships with their teams including their managers. We try hard not to assess our people on the amount of hours they spend in the office but instead on the quality of the work they do, wherever and whenever they do it.

Why do bosses still think employees have to be seen to be in the office?

I don't know. Research we did with Working Families last year found that around 60% of our people work flexibly, and around 80% of those work flexibly on an informal basis. The majority of these are staff who work from home on an occasional or ad-hoc basis. We know this has no significant impact on the quality or quantity of work being done. Indeed our employee survey tells us staff who are given the opportunity to work from home feel more positive about the firm overall. We approve a high number of requests but the majority are for part-time hours or career breaks. For us flexible working - including home-working - has some really tangible benefits for the business as well as for the individuals concerned.

Have you seen any evidence that your own staff are cutting back on flexible working requests just to appear to be more visible in the office?

In January KPMG announced a bold, innovative programme called Flexible Futures. It is asking all 11,000 partners and staff to volunteer to change their terms and condition of employment for a temporary period of 12 to 18 months. We've asked all of our people to sign up to a voluntary change in their contract which will mean the firm can ask them to work reduced hours or take part-paid leave for a fixed period, should it need to. Well over 55% of our staff signed up in just over three weeks. This is a great example of how flexible working can be a really powerful business solution and a great example of consistency of behaviour across all levels.