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There is no one-size-fits-all approach to flexible working

A little creativity could jump start the next workplace revolution.

By Claire McCartney

Since the pandemic, flexible working has become not only commonplace but something workers increasingly expect. Unfortunately, the debate around flexible working can too often focus on office workers, or more specifically people who tend to do most of their work in front of a computer.

Part of the problem is that flexible working is often confused with hybrid working, meaning it can get caught up in the debate over how, and sometimes whether, office workers should return to the office. The difference is that, while they can both support people’s well-being and be more inclusive for different kinds of workers, hybrid working only refers to flexibility in where people work. In contrast flexible working describes giving workers more control over when and how much they work as well.

Sometimes flexible working is seen as something only specific groups, like young people or new parents, want. In reality though, there are workers approaching retirement age who have been working flexibly for decades simply because they chose a career where that’s been the norm since the 1990s.

The pandemic has shown even more of us what is possible in terms of flexible working and many are looking to make sure that’s part of their career and future working life. The CIPD, as the professional body for HR and people development, have our own research which shows that around four million people have changed careers because of a lack of flexibility at work and almost two million have changed jobs for the same reason in the last year alone.

The message is clear: employees are looking for greater flexibility and better work-life balance when it comes to work, and organisations that can offer this will be a more attractive place to work and more likely to inspire employee loyalty. But too often employers still haven’t grasped all the potential benefits flexible working can bring to their organisations.

With an ageing workforce and a tight labour market, if employers are going to attract the best talent then they are increasingly going to have to offer some type of flexibility. If not, they might miss out on talented and hardworking people who might also happen to be working parents, carers or have a health condition, or who might simply want the flexibility that supports how they want to live.

Flexibility in the workplace isn’t just a matter of creating more harmony between your work and home life or improving people’s well-being, it also makes good business sense. One of the key challenges at a time of skills shortages in the labour market is attracting and retaining talent. This is an issue that cuts across the economy but it’s really hitting hard at the moment in sectors like health and social care, hospitality, retail, manufacturing and construction.

During the pandemic and since, it has largely been office workers who have benefited from remote and hybrid working options the most, while people working in front-line roles have missed out. Too often employers in front-line industries think that flexible working isn’t an option because employees need to be in a specific location, but the fact that someone can’t work from home shouldn’t mean they’re written off when it comes to new ways of working.

Restricting flexible roles risks creating a needless divide between those who can work flexibly and those who can’t, meaning people will miss out on all the benefits that flexible working can bring and making it harder to recruit for jobs on the front line.

So what can be done? The HR profession is at the forefront of developing and implementing flexible working initiatives and at the CIPD we are starting to see more and more examples of organisations being creative and experimenting with greater flexibility and new ways of working. For example, a car rental organisation we researched has implemented split shifts and job shares across their branches and depots. This has enabled them to extend their hours, creating a win-win for employees and customers.

There are lots of small things employers can do to increase flexibility for front-line workers, such as allowing direct input to shift rotas, making it easier to change shifts or even offering split shifts and job share options. Being flexible about how people can use leave to help cover short appointments or events can also help to give workers more control and support flexibility.

That isn’t to say improving flexibility isn’t without challenges. Flexible working can be more difficult to implement in front-line industries and roles, particularly for small businesses or those needing to provide a 24/7 service. But for those organisations willing to embrace different ways of working, there are huge benefits to be had.

One of the biggest barriers for many organisations is the initial costs involved in switching to flexible working patterns. That’s why we want the UK government to create a targeted challenge fund to help more organisations with non-office and front-line workers to trial different approaches and kickstart their transition to flexible working.

However, companies that want to get ahead, and that can make the upfront investment, can take steps today. Research from Timewise suggests that any upfront costs of moving to more flexible working are soon recouped from reductions in sick leave and staff turnover. Ultimately, looking after your employees and listening to what works for them is going to improve their well-being, as well as supporting productivity and engagement.

At the CIPD we have always championed a broad range of flexible working options to suit jobs across sectors and industries. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach and organisations can be creative in trying out different ways of working to see what suits their people and their needs.

Flexibility for all is the future of work. All it takes is some creativity from employers and some targeted support from the government and we could kick-start a new flexible working revolution, which, if it’s done right, can grow our workforces and improve employee well-being at the same time.

CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese will be talking about the future of flexible working at the party conferences – join him to find out more about how we can improve the world of work and support better work and working lives for everyone.

[See also: The election will be a fight between work and wealth]