December 6, 2021

What’s the flexible working story?

Wherever your organisation falls in the hybrid / flexible / home working spectrum, it is a truth universally acknowledged by HR professionals that changing working patterns is an issue we all will have to grapple with for many months - and likely years - to come.

We have taken a ‘temperature check’ on what employers are dealing with now and asked 50 HR specialists what the story was in their organisation.

What we heard

We found that 76% of businesses we surveyed have been focusing their efforts on encouraging staff to return to the office over the last couple of months.

However, there's evidence that employers’ efforts to encourage staff to return to the office are being met with an increase in flexible work requests, particularly for those businesses not already offering hybrid flexible working arrangements.

Employers are facing very real challenges in bringing back staff into offices. As many as 68% of businesses reported that staff did not want to return to the office full time, with 48% reporting an increase in flexible working requests as a result.

In the meantime, within the HR profession, 56% of surveyed specialists are concerned about health and safety, and 40% about having to manage Covid-related absences. A quarter of those surveyed also reported employees raising concerns about vaccination take up and future lockdowns.

The success stories

The desire to see people back in the office environment is understandable. Businesses make considerable investment in their office footprints and want to see them utilised. Yet employees have a powerful argument that working patterns that include both office and home-based working is entirely achievable for many businesses.

Mel Hutchfield from Nationwide Building Society tells us: "Throughout the pandemic Nationwide has been really supportive and flexible, working with its colleagues to ensure they feel empowered to work wherever they feel they will be most effective, whether that is in the office or elsewhere." Her colleague Anna Bethell adds that people can "work anywhere in the UK" and their place of work should be driven by "the outcome they are trying to achieve".

Similar policies are adopted by other major employers. Holly Coe, Head of Reward and Analytics at Aster Group, tells us: "Flexibility means different things to different people but ultimately it’s about creating choice. Colleagues can work from home, from a local office, a coffee shop – wherever suits best for their work that day."

"St James’s Place is very flexible with many working hybrid," echoes Laura Moseley, an HR consultant at St James’s Place, adding that she "works from home for 80-90% of the time".

It is encouraging to hear so many positive accounts about flexible working within organisations. However, there are still many key considerations including employee wellbeing and cyber security, as well as ensuring that an organisation’s values and culture don’t fall flat.

Collaboration and communication

There are many good reasons for employers to encourage staff back into the office, with participants in our survey pointing to improved collaboration and greater communication between teams.

"We are conscious that employees may have concerns about returning to the workplace, which is why we’ve put a number of health and safety measures in place to ensure that employees feel safe and secure", says Jo Lakin, an ER specialist at Bourne Leisure, "but one of the main benefits of having staff back in the office is better communication".

"It is the serendipitous conversation and the cross-departmental interactions," adds Claire Heald, HR Manager at OGT. "We have remembered that we all like each other!" adds Maureen Gardiner, Head of HR at Areen Design.

A new right to flexible working?

Businesses face difficult decisions, particularly as the labour market heats up. Will staff vote with their feet if they are made to return to the office on a permanent basis, or will they face, as our survey suggests, an increase in flexible working requests?

The right to request flexible working is currently available for staff after six months' service. Employees can seek to change their hours, work location or days that they work on a permanent basis. That right can be triggered no more than once each year and an employer has scope to refuse it for certain prescribed reasons.

The Government is, however, seeking to change that, making this right available from the very first day of employment. We’ve yet to see the detail of the proposed reforms, but extending this right would fundamentally change the relationship between staff and their employers. That would be a significant step forward.

The key takeaways

In a tough employment market, businesses need to take every step possible to retain key members of staff and to attract new talent. Businesses with flexible working patterns may well find it easier to do both, and at the same time really embed their business’ culture – something that has been difficult to achieve as a result of the pandemic. We would encourage employers to engage with staff to explore the best options and approach for everyone rather than adopt a single blanket policy.

And finally...

You may be curious to hear if we at RWK Goodman practice what we preach. And indeed we do: our firm successfully operates hybrid flexible working arrangements with staff encouraged to spend two days in the office each week. Amanda Dow, Director of HR at RWK Goodmans, says: "We introduced our new 2-2-1 hybrid working back in September, and acknowledge there will be learnings along the way. The future of work is new for all and it is important to us to listen to our people and to the business to hear what is and isn’t working, and make adjustment accordingly. We are excited about the opportunities that hybrid working brings".


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