Flexible Working: how well does it work? As the UK returns to the office, many teams have adopted a flexible working approach. but how well does it work – for people and companies?
Of the 78% of the UK workforce working from home in April, half have now returned to the workplace at least part-time. Flexible working – “a way of working that suits an employee’s needs” has become the most popular way of working for much of the UK’s office-based workforce.
However, flexible working is more easily defined by what it is not than what it is- not fixed daily hours, not static weekly or even monthly hours, and not solely in the workplace. It basically gives people the freedom to fit their careers around their personal lives. And in these times, it allows workspaces to operate in a reduced capacity in a safe and reasonably productive way.
But is the popularity and publicity achieved matched by the results? And is it a long-term option? Here, we explore who does it and if it works:
How many people work flexibly?
In June 2019 5.1% of the UK workforce worked mainly from home, while 18% had the option to work flexibly In some way- either in terms of hours or location. That had been steadily rising over the last few years, with 4.3% or the UK workforce working mainly from home in 2015, and this growth reflected in flexible working.
During the lockdown, the number of those working flexibly – the vast majority from home regularly- rose to 78%. By the first week of September, the majority of these had returned to work on a regular basis.
This number is still significantly lower than the 87% of full-time employees who want to work the option flexibly post-pandemic. However, companies plan to move back to office-based working in the long term, as shown in estimates that around 37% of workers will work flexibly by June 2022- still more than double the number that did 4 years previously.
Who works flexibly?
Both men and women strongly prefer to work flexibly. 84% of men in full-time employment prefer to work flexibly, slightly lower than the 91% of women.
Younger workers are the keenest, with 92% of 18-34-year olds wanting to work flexibly, slightly higher than the 88% of 35-54 years. However, younger workers are far less likely to have the option: only 19% of those 18-34 have ever worked from home, unlike the 32% of over 35’s.
Unsurprisingly, industries such as information & communication lead the way in flexibly working with 1 in 2 workers having the option, unlike hospitality, where only 1 in 10 have the option. Flexible working is also more prevalent in the tertiary-led South of England/ London where 1 in 3 adults can work flexibly.
Does it Work?
The most important question: does it work? People certainly seem to think do. 65% of workers said they would be more productive when working flexibly, and a study showed flexible workers were up to 13% more productive on the days they worked from home. Around 4% of this was due to fewer distractions, and 9% due to working longer hours- this adds up to more than 3 extra working weeks over a year.
However, that study was carried out at a call centre, where participants had no children, a dedicated workroom, and good internet connection- which is simply not the case for the majority of the UK workforce. Workers with more varied and less trackable roles, that rely on collaboration and networking, may struggle significantly, as those with young children, pets, or a cluttered environment.
While some people work longer hours, this is not true of everyone: more than a third of UK workers admit to working significantly fewer hours when at home. The top distractions are Netflix (37%), Sleeping (25%), and household chores (24%).
Flexible Working Challenges
There are clearly significant challenges when working flexibly. 1 in 3 of those working flexibly admit that they have struggled with loneliness when working from home, while 1 in 7 have been “lockdown lonely” – struggling with loneliness every week. The top 4 reasons people working remotely miss about the office are all to do with other people: 53% miss socialising with colleagues, 46% regret the lack of office banter, 45% miss face to face time, and 37% struggle with the lack of collaboration.
Other common reasons flexible missed the physical workspace was the lack of a structured routine (2 in 5 people) and the lack of atmosphere (1 in 3 people.) while some personalities benefit from the greater flexibility and freedom afforded by remote working, many are more productive with the structured routine they’ve established over years commuting to the office, where they can benefit from the workplace culture and atmosphere.
The vast majority of those that do not struggle with loneliness struggle with distractions while trying to work: 1 in 2 of UK workers struggled with distractions from other family members and pets. In addition, 1 in 3 admitted to struggling with household noise, such as washing machines, TV’s and hoovers.
While the rapid shift to remote working worked a lot better than almost anyone hoped, the people element of the workspace that is impossible to replicate led to a transition to a middle ground: flexible working. Although this means different things to different companies (and different people) the ‘flexibility’ that this method of working affords has led to its popularity in the current situation, as it is significantly better than fully remote working.
The UK workforce has come to expect the option: 87% either currently can or want to, and it is a right for those that have been working at the company for 6 months. Younger people are more likely to want to work flexibly than their older colleagues, but less likely to have the option, with service-based in the south of England industries doing the most flexible working.
Two-thirds of workers believe they are more productive- due to a combination of fewer distractions and working longer hours, however, this is offset by the vast majority of flexible workers being significantly distracted during the hours they are working by entertainment, family members and household noise/chores.
When managed well, flexible working is a viable option and is almost always preferable to completely remote working. Ultimately, the Success of remote working is heavily dependent on the type of role- for more repetitive, focussed tasks, flexible working is likely to be successful, but for varied team tasks requiring close collaboration, being separate from colleagues is a challenge.
The culture and atmosphere that can be created in a physical workspace simple cannot be recreated remotely. Neither can the results from both face to face communication and incidental collaboration – more decisions are made in corridors than boardrooms, and that is why the physical workplace is integral to the long-term success of teams and companies.