Opinion

Flexible working can boost people’s wellbeing

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Nearly two years on from the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic it’s fair to say that for some employees, working practices are remarkably different to anything they’ve experienced before.


At the onset of the pandemic, many workplaces shifted to remote working virtually overnight, with employees trading offices for their homes. Meanwhile, others remained on the frontline in challenging circumstances never seen before. Organisations and individuals had to rapidly adapt, learned different ways of working and connecting, and the majority continued to perform well.

While remote and home working – and now hybrid working, a combination of workplace and remote working – have come to the fore over the past couple of years, the reality is that there are many who still have to attend workplaces and have little flexibility or choice over their working patterns.

Claire McCartney: "Employees who have better flexibility report significantly higher levels of satisfaction with their job, work-life balance and control over their work than those who don’t."

Previous CIPD research found 46 per cent of UK employees do not have access to any form of flexible working in their current role, and those in lower paid, more manual occupations often don’t have access to the same flexible working opportunities as those in higher paid, managerial roles.

Flexible working comes in many forms – not just places of work, but hours and schedules of work, through arrangements such as job shares, part-time working, flex-time and compressed hours. Flexible working can be good for people’s wellbeing and work-life balance, support increased performance, and aid better inclusion for those with constraints on where and when they can work.

Employees who have better flexibility report significantly higher levels of satisfaction with their job, work-life balance and control over their work than those who don’t. In turn, it stands to reason that when businesses embrace flexible working they can benefit from improved employee engagement and performance.

Access to flexible working is already showing up much more strongly as factors that will attract and retain staff. As we see a tightening labour market with recruitment challenges and skills shortages in some sectors, an organisation’s flexible working offer should be seen as a key priority.

#FlexFrom1st campaign

The CIPD has been calling for improved access to flexible working through its Flex From 1st campaign, launched in February 2021, urging government and employers to make the right to request flexible working a day-one right.

Currently, employees must wait until they’ve been in a job for six months before they can make a flexible working request. We believe that this enhanced right could help to boost the uptake of a broad range of flexible working arrangements and create a real step-change to more inclusive and diverse workplaces.

CIPD'S Flex from first campaign is calling for the right to request flexible working a day-one right.

Our call gained momentum in September when the government launched its long-awaited consultation on making flexible working the default, with a focus on whether to introduce flexible working requests as a day-one right. With the consultation closing at the beginning of December we now wait to see what the outcome will be.

Before the pandemic, flexible working was viewed as an exception rather than the norm, and in some cases still is. The ‘standard’ working week, largely focused around 9-5, has not changed for generations. The culture of work has unfortunately been dominated by presenteeism and many businesses have judged performance or commitment based on those who are visible and ‘seen to be working’, rather than focusing on outputs and actual work delivered.

The pandemic can and should act as a big catalyst for change, but everyone needs to benefit. Otherwise, we risk creating a ‘two-tier’ workforce where some employees have flexibility and more choice over where they work, while others have very little. This is unfair and employers should be constantly seeking to improve and provide better experiences for their employees. The CIPD believes there should be a new understanding about what flexible working is; looking beyond remote and homeworking. Employers need to offer other flexible working arrangements, to give opportunity and choice to all.

As we move to new ways of working, employers will need to be prepared to test and learn to work out the best solutions for the organisation and individuals, working collaboratively to find flexible solutions that are mutually beneficial.

There’s no one size fits all so it’s important to be agile and adaptable, rather than simply reverting back to previous ways of working which do not work for many. We need to rethink how and why we use workspaces and how they can be better set up with the right technologies to encourage more collaboration,
to help everyone work smarter not harder.

The pandemic can and should act as a big catalyst for change, but everyone needs to benefit. Photograph: iStock

Supporting the wellbeing of remote workers

Training line managers to support their teams with new ways of working and to be confident in managing remote workers will also be crucial. Those managing remote workers will need to be aware of how to best support their teams’ wellbeing, accounting for less face-to-face time to pick up on workplace stressors or when people are over-working.

CIPD research found more than three quarters (77 per cent) of employers have observed ‘presenteeism’ – people working when unwell – in employees who are working from home in the last year. This suggests employers need to do more to tackle an ‘always on’ culture where people are finding it increasingly difficult to separate work and home life. Senior managers should role-model healthy working habits, encouraging people to switch off after working hours for example.

Good people management skills, including being able to work with diverse teams working in a variety of ways is vital, and trust is key to success. Empowering employees to have greater say over how and when they’re able to deliver their work can enhance their own performance and that of the business, but it requires trust that people can just get on and deliver – and they will.

A day-one right to flexible working

An enhanced right to request flexible working from day one in a role will create a culture change in how we view work and will be of huge benefit to many. Waiting until an employee has been in a role for 26 weeks before discussing flexible working options is an outdated policy and unhelpful for both employees and employers.

By kicking the conversation down the road rather than addressing it from day one, it may be difficult to retain an employee who is then refused a flexible working arrangement six months later. This could lead to an employee leaving, costing the business not only financially to recruit again, but also valuable skills and knowledge that have been built up during this time.

A diverse and inclusive workforce should be the ambition of every employer. Flexible working gives us the opportunity to build a workplace where people can have better control over their work-life balance and thrive at work. There has never been a better opportunity to make flexible working a reality for all.

Claire McCartney is Senior policy adviser at CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development

CIPD Flex From 1st campaign and guidance here

Government consultation on flexible working here

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