Although flexible working was by no means new at the time of the onset of the coronavirus crisis, it has roared back to the top of many UK employers’ agendas, as restrictions on national life have forced a significant proportion of workers to base themselves at home.
But what is flexible working, and what could it mean for your organisation? We’ve answered some of these key questions below.
What is flexible working?
Flexible working is all about giving employers the ability to have a say in where, when and how they work. Long before the COVID-19 outbreak, changing attitudes and advances in technology had helped give office employees greater freedom to work from almost anywhere.
Indeed, in 2012, one London employee – Casper Mason of PD3 – put the ‘work anywhere’ principle of remote working to a slightly dramatic test.
Answering the challenge of mobile phone firm O2, he chose to spend a day working from his desk suspended 20 feet above the street, in an area close to Old Street’s Silicon Roundabout – then an area experiencing swift growth as a business community.
Mr Mason’s desk, complete with his laptop, family picture and stuffed dog mascot, were suspended from a building using steel cables. They also fitted him with a safety harness to avoid his attention-grabbing stunt from making the headlines for the wrong reasons.
The emergence of flexible working practices in the years before the pandemic also reflects a shift in societal attitudes to what work can and should look like.
In the words of former Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson in 2013, when she was employment relations minister in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government: “We need to change working cultures to reflect a modern workforce. We are still stuck in the 1950s, all these old stereotypes are a thing of the past”.
And now, looking back in 2021, it’s clear that introducing flexible working has become a key priority for employers across the sectors, even independent of how the pandemic has in many ways accelerated this trend.
What are the benefits of flexible working?
To fully appreciate the benefits of flexible working today, it is perhaps instructive to consider why implementing flexible working was not always a great priority for employers in the past.
One suggested reason has been a certain management culture and style, fixated on the idea of ‘keeping an eye’ on employees in the office. There was also a culture of ‘presenteeism’ in many workplaces, whereby some employers wrongly believed their staff members could only possibly be productive when in a physical work environment.
Only in recent years have some of these attitudes – including job sharing, working from home, and adopting flexible working hours to fit in around other life commitments – finally begun to dissolve.
Indeed, the reality is that staff having the opportunity to work from home or a third place and during hours that suit them is beneficial not just for the employees in question but also for their employers.
- A study carried out by Vodafone UK in the early 2010s even uncovered evidence that staff appreciated flexible working opportunities more than traditional financial incentives. The research found that 75 per cent of respondents reported increased job satisfaction when offered flexible working.
As Vodafone UK’s then-enterprise director Peter Kelly observed in response to the study, “flexible working has gone from being a nice-to-have perk to now being at the heart of employees’ expectations. British business clearly understands that motivation and job satisfaction are more than about money – work-life balance and feeling supported at work are also vitally important.”
- Backing up these findings, a study led by Office Angels in 2013 discovered that well over half (59 per cent) of employees questioned said the ability to have a say in where or when they worked was of great importance to them.
- The job satisfaction – and associated staff retention – factor should help clarify that flexible working arrangements are not simply a ‘favour’ that employers might charitably extend to their workers.
- What flexible working does represent for organisations, as the then-chief executive of employment relations body Acas, Anne Sharp, observed in 2013, is a major opportunity to get the most out of their workforce and recruit and retain the most talented employees.
In Ms Sharp’s words, “flexible working is about modernising the workforce. It used to be seen as a perk, and for years companies used to say, ‘it will work there but not in my company’, but we’ve seen it can work.”
Are there any downsides to flexible working practices?
Not every high-profile employer was fully on-board with the notion of remote working during the 2010s. Indeed, American businesswoman Marissa Mayer – during her time as Yahoo! CEO – even called for an end to remote working in 2013, believing that getting employees back into the office would be more advantageous for cultivating a culture of team-working.
While the then British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman supported Ms Mayer’s stance, other business voices – such as Richard Branson – have come out in favour of the homeworking side of the argument down the years.
Our view here at BE Offices – and no less so today, in light of the circumstances forced by the pandemic – is that blanket argument against working from home or other remote locations fail to take into consideration the need for flexibility.
After all, even in pre-COVID-19 times, the costs of even running a traditional office were often unrealistic for many entrepreneurs and start-ups. In any case, the advent of technology has helped to give people so much freedom to work almost wherever and whenever they want that the ‘9-5’ job effectively no longer exists.
What else should your business account for when introducing flexible working arrangements?
Setting up a new business is time-intensive and often requires long hours and the ability to juggle lots of different things at once. Visiting clients is essential, and maximising downtime such as travelling to and from appointments is crucial to keeping on top of the day-to-day running of things. Working remotely using virtual desktops and cloud computing can provide the flexibility a fixed office can’t.
However, it is important to note that while remote working has positive benefits for entrepreneurs and employees, certain things need to be taken into consideration to ensure it works for your customers, too.
For example, having your mobile number may mean clients feel secure that they can contact you at any time. But if their calls always go through to voicemail or are left unanswered, frustration may ensue. Equally, always holding meetings in the local café – once they reopen – without any presentation facilities could lose your credibility.
It is therefore important to strike a balance. For bigger businesses, this means recognising the benefits of allowing staff some flexibility – a study by the Institute of Leadership & Management showed that two-thirds of respondents believe that flexible working increased commitment to an organisation, with 78 per cent stating it helped retain staff.
Meanwhile, smaller start-ups and entrepreneurs should acknowledge that using virtual offices and meeting facilities can ensure first impressions do not do their business a disservice.
Is flexible working a legal right?
Almost all employees who have worked for the same employer for at least 26 weeks have the right to request flexible working arrangements – a process known as ‘making a statutory application’. This right is not reserved purely for parents and carers.
In turn, an employer that receives a request for flexible working must handle it in a ‘reasonable manner’. Examples of dealing with a flexible working request in a reasonable manner include assessing the application’s advantages and disadvantages, holding a meeting with the employer to discuss the request, and offering an appeals process.
If an employer fails to reasonably handle a flexible working request, the employee is entitled to take them to an employment tribunal.
However, an employer can refuse a flexible working application if they have a good business reason for doing so.
How can BE Offices help your organisation to realise its ambitions in the flexible working era?
Amid the tumult and uncertainty of the COVID-19 crisis, BE Offices is continuing to provide London and UK businesses with flexible workspace to help them thrive in the new era of flexible and remote working.
We can deliver the COVID-Secure serviced office space and virtual offices that represent the best match to what may be the ever-changing circumstances and requirements of your organisation – all while empowering your employees to work effectively and give their best.
Call 0800 073 0490 now for more information about availability and prices.