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Making flexible working work for your organisation

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 17 Feb 2023

The head of business group the CBI believes that most bosses secretly want everyone to come back into the office. But against a backlash from staff, how will the flexible working debate pan out?

Both flexible and hybrid working have been in use for years but, not surprisingly, adoption has accelerated following the pandemic. By April 2022, half of employees (51%) at businesses surveyed by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) had flexible working arrangements in place; and 44% of employees were regularly working from home at least once a week, up from 19% before the pandemic. 

“There’s massive demand from employees for more flexibility, but some companies face challenges that make it much harder,” says Victoria Robinson, Workforce Strategy and Culture Lead at PwC in the UK. These problems include the inflexibility of client/customer demands, or the nature of the job in question.

In December 2022, the government announced that under its Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill, employees will have the right to request flexible working from day one of employment, rather than only after 26 weeks. Its intention is to help create more diverse, happier, and productive workforces. 

Some employers are unimpressed. Writing in The Times, industrialist James Dyson castigated “an economically illiterate and staggeringly self-defeating” policy, that would “jeopardise … vital in-person collaboration and momentum”, and discourage investment in the UK. 

But whatever an employer’s view, many feel they must try to use flexible working, in part because it appears to be so popular with current and prospective employees. “If you don’t let anybody work flexibly, you will not attract talent,” says Sir Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at the University of Manchester. 

So what are the most important benefits and potential problems for employers and employees trying to find a mutually acceptable form of flexibility?

Benefits of flexible working for employers

Research by the charity Working Families, the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) and the Work Foundation does show flexible workers reporting higher levels of job satisfaction and commitment. CIPD figures also suggest increased employee loyalty and job satisfaction – and reduced sickness absence. 

More than two-thirds of organisations (68%) that offer hybrid working told CIPD it also helped attract and retain a more diverse pool of talent, including more parents and older people, or those with caring commitments who might not be able to work otherwise.

Another possible advantage is improved employee performance. The Working Families/IES/Work Foundation research suggests flexible workers are more likely to increase discretionary effort, potentially generating 43% additional revenue. 

The CIPD has found that 41% of employers that have increased use of hybrid working think it has increased productivity – although 18% think productivity has fallen. 43% think employees are generally more productive when working from home or on a hybrid basis; 20% think they are less productive. 

Finally, an increase in flexible working could also mean an employer can repurpose or reduce office space, generating significant cost and carbon savings.

Disadvantages for employers

Employers must ensure flexible or hybrid working does not undermine operational effectiveness, particularly for frontline client/customer roles. “This is a service industry and clients come first,” says Chris Grove, Corporate Finance Partner and Head of Transaction Services at BDO London. 

Flexible or hybrid working can also create management problems. “You may have managers who can’t manage teams where some people are not in the office,” says Cooper. “They can’t see when people are not coping, or have unmanageable workloads.” Better training can address this problem. 

If some employees can work flexibly and some cannot, this can create resentment: 43% of employees told CIPD it is unfair if only some people can work flexibly; 76% think those who cannot work from home should be able to work flexibly in other ways. 

Benefits for employees

“When people work flexibly they have less sickness absence, they feel valued and trusted, they don’t have the stress or cost of commuting; and they have a better work/life balance,” Cooper claims. 

CIPD’s research shows that 76% of employees whose employers have implemented flexible working arrangements report satisfaction with their work/life balance, compared with 60% working for employers that have not implemented flexibility. 

A happy balance is possible in a hybrid arrangement: KPMG’s hybrid working plan includes guidance for client-facing staff to be in the office or at a client site for a minimum of two days per week. “It was clear people needed two days per week in the office for collaboration and learning, but we also knew people were valuing that choice not to have to commute every day,” says KPMG London Office Senior Partner and Regional Chair Anna Purchas. 

Jessica Pillow launched accountancy practice Pillow May in 2009 when she was a working parent and wanted to employ others in the same position. Today, its eight employees spend about 60% of their working hours in the office, in part because of a recommendation from ICAEW that this would be a good balance for an apprentice working at the firm. Pillow thinks it is important to have one day per week when most people are in the office, making it easier to have face-to-face meetings and build a team culture. 

But there are many ways that flexibility makes life easier for her team, around daily arrangements, school holidays and other commitments. “It’s about treating everyone as individuals,” says Pillow. “That pays off: they’re much happier.”

Disadvantages for employees

Remote working can be stressful in part because of isolation: 44% of employers surveyed by CIPD that have increased use of homeworking say they have seen increases in stress or other mental health problems among employees working remotely. Suzie Dawes, Head of People and Culture at caba (the Chartered Accountants Benevolent Association) emphasises the importance of informal occasions or team-building days when colleagues can meet in person to build relationships. 

Almost a quarter (24%) of employees surveyed by CIPD were worried that if they often work from home or other remote locations they may be treated less favourably than colleagues who are always in the workplace. 

But the biggest problem may be an intensification of a feeling most of us know, that in the digital age we are ‘always on’ – work is inescapable. Research by caba shows 87% of accountants spend some or a lot of time at home thinking about work-related problems, while one in three (32%) spend a lot of their leisure time worrying about work. 

Accountancy firms of all sizes claim to be actively addressing this issue. It’s important to remember one of the most important aspects of flexible working – the fundamental benefit it can give employees that then helps unlock its benefits for the employer. As Cooper says, in an often chaotic and stressful world, “People want some degree of autonomy and control over their lives.”

Making flexibility work for your organisation

Organisations of all types and sizes will continue to search for the best ways for them and their employees to benefit from flexible working, without exposing themselves or their employees to unacceptable risks, and without creating divisions between those members who can benefit fully from flexible working and those who cannot do so to the same extent.

If there is a need to impose limitations on flexible working, says CIPD Senior Policy Adviser Claire McCartney, this must be explained to workers, not just imposed upon them. “Just saying ‘this amount of time in the office’ without explaining the purpose behind it will create resentment,” she warns.

For most employers, it will take some time to find the best way to access the potential benefits of flexible working. “Everyone is feeling their way through this because it is a radically different way of working for lots of organisations,” says PwC’s Robinson. “There’s no one size fits all. It’s about working through the organisation’s and the individual’s needs to come up with a formula that works for both.” 

Finding an approach that works for you, and that unlocks benefits and opportunities for employer and employee, will make all that time and effort worthwhile.

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