The Changing Pattern of Flexible Working

In this paper we discuss the changing work patterns we have seen emerge over recent years, and examine how these may affect work patterns in the future. Importantly, it will be necessary for culture to change to take advantage of these. In 2014 the law changed to reflect the fact that all workers are able to ask for flexible working arrangements, and not just parents or carers. So, why are we still seeing a culture of presenteeism?

Both work and personal patterns are changing and organisations need to keep pace with this to ensure that they can attract and retain the best talent. We are leading longer and healthier lives, retiring later, and families sharing childcare and care of the elderly is increasing as demographics change over time; thus we see portfolio careers emerging and incorporating ongoing periods of learning and development, voluntary assignments and perhaps mentoring, with less structured opportunities becoming the norm.

Research has shown that four in ten workers want to work flexibly in some way, whilst a much smaller number of opportunities specify that this is possible from the outset, which can in turn lead to businesses missing out on the best talent. Potential benefits for both themselves and their employees are multiple and could include:

  • Fostering a collaborative environment to attract and retain the best talent through freedom to operate and less control, ultimately a more engaged and committed workforce
  • For the finance function and indeed any part of a business enhancing these working practices can have a significant impact upon staff retention, thus avoiding loss of valued skills sets and experience; and the cost and management time required to replace and backfill roles. Happy employees are the cornerstone to retention, and offering flexibility is one such way to achieve this. This has been demonstrated in an employee survey carried out for CIPD by Kingston University/Ipsos MORI found that “workers on flexible contracts tend to be more emotionally engaged, more satisfied with their work, more likely to speak positively about their organisation and less likely to quit.”
  • Savings on property and energy costs can be significant. Reducing space requirements and fixed costs by implementing a hot-desking system in conjunction with some home working. Whilst there may be a certain level of implementation cost to setting up working from home solutions, payback periods would typically be short and outweigh the initial investment. A simple P&L projection comparative could show the impact on profitability and timeframe for payback.
  • As environmental audits and the impact of an organisation’s carbon footprint become inherent in both legislation and culture, reduced travel and space requirements can help support this.
  • Time saved for employees can be put to more useful activities, whether it is more efficient working patters or improved work/life balance. It has been shown in various time and motion studies that there is a causal link between productivity and flexible working. A traditional and standard working day, and the need to commute can negatively impact on both a worker’s time and energy. Employees who are able to manage their own time find they can work when inspired or unencumbered with other responsibilities, and can in turn greatly improve their efficiency leading to better productivity as well as improving quality.
  • It is now very much accepted that we work in a global market place that largely operates 24/7. Somewhere around the globe there is always someone ready to do business, and offering flexible working can help your workforce to meet your customers’ needs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Thus allowing a business to offer consistency of service and be less likely to miss out on opportunities.

Key ingredients to supporting the culture of flexibility work are trust and technology and are discussed in greater detail.

Firstly, workplace structures, the labour market demographic is changing. Moving away from a rigid corporate ladder, a corporate lattice allows free-flowing ideas and career paths. You can still browse the business section in a bookshop and find many publications promoting the secret to climbing the corporate ladder, but perhaps the day is not so far off when such books will seem as quaint and outdated as a housekeeping manual from the 1950s.

One of the key workplace trends of the 21st century has been the folding of the corporate ladder which dates back to industrial revolution, whereby loyal employees climbed towards the higher echelons of management one promotion at a time and when successful businesses were built on economies of scale, standardisation and a strict hierarchy. However, we have moved from an industrial age to a digital age. Further, one of the most significant changes is the composition of the workforce, which is increasingly diverse across all demographics.

This new diversity, combined with technological advances, has fed the demand for a more collaborative and flexible working environment. Companies have “flattened out” losing their layers of management in favour of a matrix type structure, where ideas and freedom flow along horizontal, vertical and diagonal paths and employees can pitch to decision makers. Individuals can find growth variety of roles, experiences, skills and networks. The world is less predictable than it was in the industrial age, so you stay relevant by acquiring a portfolio of transferable skills.

As the labour market demographic changes so too are the needs and desires of the workforce. For the older generation (those born before about 1980) control over work, development opportunities and remuneration are the key drivers for job satisfaction. However, it is emerging that millennials have different ideas for such fulfilment. As they have less job security, more than likely will retire later and face new challenges to do so with a pension, their attitudes to work differ significantly.

PWC recently published a global generational study. With findings that millennial employees are unconvinced that excessive work demands are worth the sacrifices to their personal life. Millennials value work/life balance and they place a high priority on workplace culture. Flexibility in where they work and how much they work is a key driver in maintaining millennial satisfaction.

We are now experiencing a merging of family roles in society, and it is less likely that one parent will be responsible for all domestic arrangements, whilst the other contributes financially. Flexible work allows individuals to achieve this balance, whilst ensuring that domestic responsibilities such as children or caring for family members can be achieved without impinging upon work responsibilities. From a practical perspective care for children and the elderly can prove prohibitively expensive for many working age adults to commit to careers they would wish to follow. Allowing employees the freedom fulfil these responsibilities will contribute to a happy and productive environment.

Equally, it is unfair to assume that older workers are less adaptable. One of the major reasons people are unable to make effective transitions from one role to another is that their skills become outdated, in turn the major contributor to that is not having the opportunity to train. Individuals have to take ownership of their careers, but there is also an onus on the government and employers to provide work programmes and apprenticeships to maintain a skilled older workforce, thus enabling better use of skills and knowledge of older workers and ultimately benefiting the entire economy and increasing GDP.

Retirement is unlikely to continue as we know it, as we all live longer and healthier lives – life expectancy is currently 81 in the UK; and ultimately we need to continue funding this change in demographic, with pressure on Governments finding it hard to afford pensions for a longer lifespan; and individuals themselves needing to make their retirement savings work harder. Retiring aged 65 looks set to become a statistic of the past so why not exploit older people’s experience, and support them in keeping their minds active. Hence we can speculate that we are entering a period in which older workers will stop working gradually rather than abruptly upon reaching retirement age, which currently stands at 65 for men and 62 for women in the UK rising to 67 for both by 2028.

However, one should also be mindful of potential pitfalls when considering flexibility policies, and how to effectively manage these into an organisation and mitigate the associated risks.

This could, for example include implementing appropriate KPIs to ensure that the team’s goals are being exceeded, and to what extent; if not, why not, and are they the correct measures, being mindful of the old adage, you get what you measure.

Innovation is essential to support effective measures, and in turn collaboration is essential to drive that innovation. Many start-ups and innovative organisations such Google, can have a tendency towards being office based, and whilst this may fly in the face of home based working, it is important to distinguish that flexibility is not just home working, but should be all encompassing and include the movement of “traditional” office hours and a combination of these practices. Whilst there could be an element of making the work place a more attractive and innovative environment than a traditional place of desks, it is also important to remember that people’s primary driver for flexible work is likely to help enable them to balance multiple responsibilities and practicalities rather than being unhappy with their workplace.

An open environment is key to embed the culture, efficiency and ways of working needed to make a success of the environment, as is flexibility from both employee and employer to ensure that collaboration can be balanced with focus and delivery. This leads on to considering a change in remuneration structures, moving away from time based to delivery focused, thus allowing maintained congruence of goals between employee and employer.

It is important that good relationships are built, within a team, within a hierarchy and ultimately with clients, and so flexible options should consider and account for this. For example regular face to face meetings when working from home is a preferred option; and ensuring sufficient overlap in working days where differing hours are an option, just as one would while working with teams across multiple time zones.

We can link several of these issues, specifically, technology and people to our earlier papers on the progressive finance function and how to set up.

This discussion is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the positives that a business take from offering flexible working options. As technological developments continue to support such working practices, these are becoming increasingly popular requests and attractive options to both employers and employees.

Now is the time to consider how flexible working options could enhance your business. Whilst shareholders and employees are clearly different stakeholder groups with different objectives, the more these can be aligned to one another the more successful an organisation will be in achieving it’s goals. Ultimately, employees should come first, if you take care of your employees they will take care of clients.


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