Beyond the hybrid: flexible working for site-based roles

Blog posts

7 Sep 2023

Astrid AllenAstrid Allen, Research Fellow

I recently shared research with our HR Network members on flexible working beyond the hybrid, focusing on enabling flexibility for people who cannot work from home. Too often, conversations about flexible working revert to discussions about remote and home working. It seems that the issue of making flexible working succeed in the context of site-based roles is so challenging that it requires a dedicated focus.

Some managers are taking steps to transform how roles can be performed but, particularly in the context of site-based roles, many are struggling to balance flexibility with operational needs. The perpetually difficult question facing them is ‘what if everyone wants the same flexibility?’. Some organisations have tied themselves in knots, agreeing to individual requests for flexibility that they cannot replicate, while others have reached an impasse.

Employers are, however, increasingly recognising that the dissatisfaction of workers who are excluded from remote working means that change is inevitable. 56 per cent of workers do not work from home and it is this group that report less job satisfaction than those working remotely. Increasingly, employees are voting with their feet. New recruits are seeking out organisations with flexibility (which nine in ten people say they want) and existing workers are leaving organisations that don’t support them to change their working patterns. I have heard several stories of people leaving one department to join another, just because the manager is more open to flexible working.

With the support of Impact on Urban Health and Barclays Life Skills, IES is currently working with our friends at Timewise, together with Wickes, Sir Robert McAlpine and Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust to explore the impact of increased flexible working, focusing on people who work in site-based roles. From this work, we know that there are lots of different types of flexibility that can support people to work their roles effectively and create a valuable work life balance. More on that to come when we report in the Spring. Just as importantly, however, our recently reported work with Restart providers has shown how many job seekers would not be able to access or stay in a role without flexibility.

The job design of many roles has been influenced by practice, systems and culture ('the way things are done around here') and those elements can be very hard to change.

So what can employers do?


The employers we work with say that developing their understanding is key. Conducting research to test the water, exploring the extent and nature of the experiences and views that frontline workers and their managers have on flexible working can provide the starting point. At our recent webinar on this subject for HRN members, one employer commented “Where it’s happened on our sites, we’ve asked individuals to take part in that discussion … asking them ‘what ideas have you got about what could work?’, asking them to take a bit of a lead in it, and I’ve found that’s been quite helpful for getting their ideas and suggestions and they’ve come up with ways of working that they can put in place within their team that, as an outsider, I wouldn’t have thought about”.

IES is supporting the South East London Integrated Care System to do this through a series of employee focus groups in four NHS Trusts. These consultations provide a safe space for workers to give their feedback on flexible working, what’s working, what’s not, what could work and how.

While a need for increased flexibility for staff may be accepted in principle, it is often the case that application in service delivery contexts is viewed as challenging or even impossible, until these kinds of conversations happen. 


Engaging teams to help design solutions is the next step. It is incredibly difficult (actually, impossible) for managers to respond to individual requests and fully understand the potential implications on other members of the team. Many a flexible working request has been denied because of the fear of disgruntlement among staff who are subsequently denied the same option.

Encouraging teams to take control of the flexibility that individuals can have, giving due consideration to impacts on the wider organisation and customers, is critical. Asking them to manage, monitor and continually review their approach will ensure that they remain responsive to changes both within the organisation and among the individuals working within it.

The role of HR here is crucial, setting principles or parameters that provide a framework in which solutions can be designed. One NHS Foundation Trust is asking teams to produce a written agreement (they call it an ‘Agile working team charter’) to establish ways of working that will support effective service delivery. Enabling opportunities for teams to learn from one another will spread best practice and consistency. 


Piloting new approaches to see what works gives employers the opportunity to introduce change gradually and identify risks as they go. It also mitigates against the resistance that would come with change by diktat. Introducing new flexible working approaches as part of a trial, to see if they can be successful, is a way of encouraging innovation and making change more manageable. As well as enabling senior management to commit without a full scale implementation, pilots can provide crucial evidence to support the business case for wider change.

More subtly, pilots encourage cultural change by engaging managers and staff in a conversation around flexible working and showing them what ‘good flexible working’ can look like. This is not an easy process, and it is important to ensure that any pilot allows for unintended consequences (good and bad) to be worked through. 

Through the Fair flex for all project, IES has worked with employers from a range of sectors to set up evaluation measures (e.g. recruitment, diversity, retention and sickness absence) to identify the impacts of increased flexible working on staff in frontline roles and their organisations. Using qualitative evaluation approaches alongside these key indicators, we are able to explore the causal relationship between changes and outcomes and identify factors that may be critical to success. Producing case study examples will also help to tell the human story of how good flexible working improves people’s lives. 


And finally, invest in flexible working. To really transform your organisational approach will require resources, effort and resolve. While flexible working (implemented well) can lead to greater equality, wellbeing and productivity benefits for people in frontline roles, that does not mean that getting there will be painless.

Providing teams with the support they need to make change happen is vital. Flexible working will need to be viewed as business critical by the senior leadership team, and HR given the time and expertise to implement flexible working (or access to it) using a change management approach, building on the evidence from trials to support a cultural shift. One organisation we are working with has created a new senior post to focus on flexible working, managing the delivery of trials and facilitating wider change.  

It is time that people who cannot work from home have parity of opportunity to explore flexible working and more organisations proactively embrace this as a way of attracting the best, retaining the best and getting the best out of people, whatever role they perform.

If you want to discuss how IES can support you to develop flexible working for frontline roles, please contact Astrid Allen.

Subscribe to blog posts

Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.