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Research reveals inconsistencies in flexible working practice

On the tenth anniversary of their launch, white collar flexible working recruitment consultancy Ten2Two asked 250 UK employers and over 1,000 employees – the majority of whom were female professionals at the peak of their career and salary earning potential – how they felt attitudes towards flexible working had changed in the last decade.

It’s all in the numbers. Or is it?

The quantitative research findings show flexible working is largely meeting the needs of both businesses and employees working flexibly. Both groups feel that attitudes towards flexibility in the workplace has improved across the last decade – a trend supported by other recent research and employment statistics. However, going beyond the numbers and reading the 2,000 comments submitted across the survey highlighted the business community still has a long way to go in providing consistent, transparent and fair flexibility in the workplace.

Employers and workers agree – flexible working is a benefit to all

Adoption of flexible working amongst businesses of all sizes has grown. More than 65% of employers stated they had recruited flexible workers in the last two years, with over half structuring it on a formal, contracted basis. Business also appreciate the value of being flexible as 83% of employers agreed that flexible working has benefitted their business with 56% strongly agreeing with the premise.

‘Retention of valued people’, ‘employee satisfaction and wellbeing’ and ‘access to a broader talent pool’ were quoted by businesses as the key business benefits: We have several members of staff who probably would either not have joined and/or not still be here if we hadn’t been able to offer/agree flexible working patterns.” (business owner respondent). Furthermore, employees highly ranked ‘employee productivity’ as a business benefit after employee retention and satisfaction, describing flexible working as a particularly efficient and cost-effective working pattern.

The employee respondents seek to satisfy a combination of career and family-based aims through flexible working. ‘Doing stimulating and rewarding work’ and ‘continuing to use my skills and experience’ were balanced with the need to ‘meet family commitments’ and ‘work in a convenient location’.  Respondents’ comments describe the challenges of being the primary carer for children (65%) whilst being committed and flexible in their work. However, many commented on the value flexibility offers and suggested they wouldn’t be able to satisfy work and home-based demands without it. A significant 92% felt flexible working is meeting their objectives but only half felt it was fully meeting their objectives.

Practice makes perfect

The survey’s quantitative findings paint a positive and encouraging picture of flexible working in 2017 but the 2,000 verbatim comments made by employees and employers throughout the survey suggests inconsistent application of day-to-day flexible working patterns, practices and processes and the inability to embrace cultural change, particularly amongst line managers, is holding back the opportunities to maximise the benefits of flexible working for all parties. A common theme emerged describing the disparity between positive corporate policy and corporate support for flexible working and the lack of leadership and positive, constructive and fair support provided by line managers.

Deborah O’Sullivan, Operations Director and joint Founder of Ten2Two commented,  “We were taken by surprise at the strength of feeling among flexible workers.  Only 20% of over 2,000 heartfelt comments from respondents were positive highlighting that perception and reality are far apart with flexible workers experiencing discrimination, bias and inconsistencies in implementation, especially in larger businesses.

“However, all movement to embrace flexible working is positive and it is clear that the more employees and in particular managers, experiment with flexible working themselves, the more it gets embedded into companies as a productive working practice.”

Flexible working patterns more accepted?

To quantify such a strong and often emotional response the survey asked how attitudes towards flexible working had changed in the last decade. Both employer and employee communities feel attitudes towards flexible working have improved to some degree over the last 10 years although only a small minority feel there has been a clear change for the better.

Employees’ reaction was lukewarm with only 11% stating a clear, positive change has occurred whilst 60% stated it was ‘somewhat positive’. Employers have a more optimistic view with nearly a third feeling the change has been evident but 62% – a similar level to that of employees –  only feel change has been ‘somewhat positive’. 

Time for Change

Looking ahead we asked ‘what would be the one thing that you would do to improve the adoption of and attitudes towards flexible working?’  Several interesting themes emerged including greater gender parity in the adoption of flexible working patterns. As one respondent answered: Increase in men taking up part-time working. At the moment it’s seen as very much a female need and therefore not taken as seriously.”

Respondents frequently commented that accessibility – driven by smartphones, laptops and cloud-based systems and services – has removed a key practical barrier to workplace flexibility. Irrespective of whether an employee is working part-time or full-time, being able to easily communicate with colleagues and customers and securely access information and data from a non-office remote location has liberated many businesses and employees.

A stronger objectives-based performance culture that measures output rather than presence and ongoing education for both senior and line managers was also viewed as essential.  Interestingly, additional legislation was perceived as a poor change driver in the business community. 

Looking Ahead

In an environment where conducting business will become a greater challenge as we prepare to leave the EU and as we broaden our horizons across the global marketplace, the ability to find and retain talented people will increase in importance and become a premium differentiator. A skilled, stable, diverse and flexible workforce is key to success and the research suggests businesses need to continue the journey towards fully understanding and embracing flexibility.

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