Prior to the pandemic, flexible working was like a unicorn. Mythical, shapeshifting and hard to pin down, it was reserved for a small subset of workers who had to negotiate to get such an elusive ‘privilege’. Fast forward three years, and a lot has changed, with flexible working now part of the mainstream. According to the latest CIPD report on flexible work and hybrid practices, 60% of UK employees have flexible working arrangements (compared to 51% in 2022). In general, workers doing flexible working are more likely to be satisfied with their work-life balance and professional relationships than those who don’t.
But the proportion of organisations taking steps to increase the provision of flexible working over the next 6 to 12 months has actually fallen. Only 16% plan to expand their offering beyond home/hybrid working. That’s a drop of 6% since 2022. Just under a third (28%) say it’s not a business priority given the challenges they’re facing. This flies in the face of all the evidence supporting more flexible working, and leaves businesses exposed to the fast-accelerating automation that’s set to impact all of our industries.
Despite the pandemic proving that working full-time onsite five days a week simply isn’t necessary, companies have failed to configure the business case to support new shifts in working styles. Some have tried to compromise by introducing hybrid models, or perhaps trialling a four-day week. But it doesn’t go far enough. They need to stop focusing on time, and hone in on deliverables instead. Here’s the FindYourFlex take on the state of UK working models, and why more flexible forms of work are a need-to-have, not a nice-to-have…
1. Full Time or Part Time? Take your pick…
The only ways of working available to us and why that presents issues for people who need more flexibility.
For too long, how we work fell into two camps: full-time, chained to a desk, falling in step with the arbitrary rhythm of 9am to 5pm. Or part-time, which is basically the same, minus a few days of work and pay. With PAYE such a dominant model, workers and businesses lost sight of the need for flexibility in our working models.
Relying heavily on time-based contracts, taxation models are built almost exclusively to benefit from greater proportions of PAYE workers. Compared to the self-employed or wealthy who are taxed on much lower rates through Dividends and Capital Gains. So the PAYE model has been legislatively very difficult to adapt – and hasn’t enabled the kind of flexibility that workers need and want.
Admittedly, there are good reasons why PAYE has dominated. The rise of unions, the public sector’s lead on enshrined worker’s rights and being introduced to European law in the last century has done a great deal for progress. But these movements, as a collective force, weren’t able to safeguard flexibility and blend it into our working models. All they’ve done is further trap us. We lost sight of the fact that the most productive workers are the ones who can fit work around caregiving duties, personal struggles, hobbies, interests and quite simply, whims, rather than the other way around.
There was slightly more leeway for workers who were mothers. With a perfectly pitched request, made at just the ‘right’ time, they might have been granted time to pick up the children from school, stay home with them when they fell ill, or do a shorter working day to fulfil duties. But what about their partners? Or for that matter, everyone else in the workforce? Everyone, even those given special provision, was trapped in a prison of conformity.
2. How the Pandemic Forced the Flexible Working Issue
How the pandemic forced employers to change the way staff worked, which removed the excuse that deriving from the old ways would make day-to-day running impossible.
Cast your minds back to 2020, when a deadly pandemic stopped us all in our tracks. Work moved to the home, as did education, socialising exercise, and all the other activities that made up the tapestry of our lives. It was a lot to handle. But working flexibly for all kinds of reasons, not just caregiving, began to happen in a more robust way, almost by accident. And, hey presto, the tasks required of a now largely at-home, flexible workforce still got done. Such a sustained social experiment was nothing short of a gift. It brought forth monumental change in the way staff worked and proved that flexible working can and should be available to everyone.
While exposing the flimsiness of any argument that more flexible ways of working stands in opposition to the day-to-day running of business. It revealed that the full-time onsite five-day week isn’t necessary to get business done – or even deliver optimum productivity. All of which has been evidenced by our own research. The 4-Day Week and full-time onsite have the lowest productivity rates. Meaning businesses are getting nowhere near their money’s worth out of staff. According to another poll, by VoucherCloud, the average office worker is productive for less than three hours a day.
Stoking deeper discussions – about a shorter working week. Deeper understanding of flexitime and a preference for working from home that remains. There’s no denying that we are making progress. Workers are certainly hopeful – the CIPD finds that 76% of employees believe the pandemic will lead to long-term change towards more flexible working. But without a more concerted effort from business, this leap forwards will stagnate. And in some cases, is already rolling backwards.
3. What Comes Next?
Now that employers must embrace flexible working, how can they do it?
There’s huge unmet demand from all workers for different types of flexible working arrangements. Including flexitime, compressed hours, or a four-day week. A flexible working model that isn’t one-size-fits-all. But with businesses locked into a PAYE model, the best employees can hope for right now is a four-day week. Which for many, is just five days work, crammed into four. Or they claim to be embracing flexible work as a box-ticking exercise to get candidates through the door. Only for them to find it’s all a ruse when they become employees (warning: unicorns crossing).
When we define flexible working with this degree of myopia, the business results are dire. Sticking to just one ‘type’ of flexible working, in one specific mould will fail in the long run. And emerge even more stultifying and stressful than the classic 9 to 5. Outcome based working, however, isn’t just the most productive and profitable style of working for employers (as proven by our 2022 study), it also enables full flexibility for staff (which they desperately want).
Just as the Industrial Revolution reshaped the world, so too will the digital revolution. We’re on the cusp of epic transformation. Rarely a day goes by without a headline screaming about the impact of AI and automation on jobs. Shifting to outcome-based work can help protect and reskill an endangered workforce and eventually channel them back into changing businesses. But that’s just one benefit of outcome-focused work. In future blog articles, we’ll be digging further into exactly how this will happen in the long term. For the moment, the best starting point is accepting that the way we work now simply doesn’t work. And to guarantee actual change that benefits workers and businesses alike, a lens view shift is essential.