Can the pandemic transform flexible working opportunities?

Blog posts

19 Oct 2020

Rosie Gloster, Senior Research Fellow
James Cockett, Research Fellow (Economist)

Rosie Gloster

James Cockett

In early 2020 the right to request flexible working covered all employees working for the same employer for at least 26 weeks but take up was relatively low, and the reasons behind the varied take-up of flexible working were complex. They include seeming reluctance among some employers to change long-standing models of working and at times a difficult balance between the employee, their team and the organisation, as well as hesitancy among some employees to request it due to perceptions that it was for women with children and the potential sacrifices such as slower progression, lower pay or downgraded job roles.

Several organisations covering a wide demographic, have campaigned on better access to flexible working, including the Centre for Ageing Better and Gingerbread. This led to a request in parliament to ensure all jobs are advertised on a flexible basis. Then the pandemic hit, threw all the cards in the air, and fast-tracked significant changes in ways of working for many people.

An estimated 43 per cent of employees were working from home during the pandemic (up from 6 per cent beforehand). Research suggests that nearly nine out of ten (88 per cent) of employees who worked at home during lockdown would like to continue to do so in some capacity, and numerous studies have found more appetite from employees for flexibility going forward and no rush to return to business as usual. This is a seismic shift in working patterns and attitudes, yet it is also worth remembering the 57 per cent of employees who were not able to work from home during this time, and that many employers would have to have allowed flexible working to many employees out of necessity rather than desire.

What have we learned from the pandemic about flexible working? Can all jobs be advertised on a flexible basis?

As a concept, flexible working is not straightforwardly defined or measured  and the variation in what flexible working means requires reflection before we can determine whether all jobs could be advertised on a flexible basis. There is:

  1. Flexibility in when work is undertaken. This can be written into a contract of employment, giving fixed patterns of flexibility. Contracted flexible working patterns take many forms: part-time hours, compressed hours, and zero-hours contracts for example, varying the start and finish times, and length of day. Alternatively, flexibility can be part of an over-arching flexible working policy, giving employees guidance about working flexibly on an ad-hoc basis.
  2. Flexibility in where work is undertaken. For example, at home, in the office or other place of work. Some types of work can be undertaken remotely, or online, whereas others require the employee to physically attend a specific location to undertake their role, this will always be the case.

Some aspects of flexibility, such as shift patterns, can be employer-led to meet business needs; in some organisations, shifts will cover 24 hours a day. Flexibility can also be employee-led, for example requesting to work within school hours, or to take extended breaks around school start and finish times. The balance between employer-determined flexibility and employee-determined flexibility varies by occupation, and between employers and employees.

Before the current crisis, formal flexible working varied by occupation and sector. Occupation level data from the Labour Force Survey showed that formal flexible working was common in office-based government occupations, professional occupations such as teaching and unsocial hour occupations, and less common in occupations that are manual or require set start and finish times (Table 1). Sectors where there was less formal flexible working included wholesale and retail (16 per cent), construction (17 per cent) and manufacturing and financial services (which both had 21 per cent of the workforce on formal flexible working). By contrast, half of employees in the education sector (50 per cent) and 45 per cent of employees in public administration had formalised flexible working arrangements.

For all the talk of a push for more flexibility, we should acknowledge that access to employee-led flexible working is unequal and that is not likely to change. The CIPD megatrends report highlights the significant proportion of the workforce who do not have the option to work flexibly, and the recent CIPD working lives survey found that flexible working was more common in higher level job roles with greater autonomy. We also see this in trends in the Understanding Society survey. Table 2 show occupations where over three quarters of employees can vary their working hours on an informal basis and occupations where less than a third can. Employees with a high degree of informal flexible working include directors, managers, and professionals - predominantly office-based roles. This contrasts with those with low degrees of informal flexible working which are generally lower skilled occupations or occupations where it is a requirement to work at specific times, such as teachers.

Is it possible to offer all forms of flexibility in all job roles?

We need to understand the nuances of flexibility and its interaction with the complex lives of employees, to understand which job roles, and what type of flexibility, might be feasible, and who might require it. There are also contradictions – for example in the education sector which can offer high levels of contracted flexibility, but less opportunity for informal flexible working.

There will remain inequalities in the job roles able to work flexibly when, where and how this is determined. For some occupations, the balance of power will be with the employer and in others it will be with the employee. As we discuss where and when to work, the conversation about flexible working needs to recognise these key elements and acknowledge where there may be limitations to the flexibility employers can deliver and employees can expect in certain occupations.

If the government consultation requires employers to offer flexible work for new job opportunities, information provided in job adverts needs to be clear about the types of flexibility that can be offered in each job role: whether the flexibility is formal and contracted or informal, whether there can be flexibility in the place of work; and whether or not aspects of what that flexibility entails can readily be determined by the employee and what the organisation and wider team will require. Given the many determinants of the size and shape of flexibility – and the need at times for flexibility to be flexible– maybe it is sufficient to indicate that an employer is open to discussing flexible working and which aspects. The pandemic has shone a light on flexible working, and it is likely to increase, but it also has limitations.

Table 1- Occupations with low or high degree of formal flexible working

High degree of formal flexible working

Low degree of formal flexible working

Administrative Occupations: Government and Related Organisations

Building Finishing Trades

Childcare and Related Personal Services

Cleaning and Housekeeping Managers and Supervisors

Teaching and Educational Professionals

Hairdressers and Related Services

Conservation and Environment Professionals

Skilled Metal, Electrical and Electronic Trades Supervisors

Conservation and Environmental Associate Professionals

Managers and Directors in Retail and Wholesale

Welfare and Housing Associate Professionals

Agricultural and Related Trades

Librarians and Related Professionals

Construction and Building Trades

Source: Labour Force Survey April-June 2019

Table 2- Occupations with low or high degree of informal flexible working

High degree of informal flexible working

Low degree of informal flexible working

Chief Executives and Senior Officials

Teaching and Educational Professionals

Functional Managers and Directors

Construction and Building Trades

Welfare Professionals

Childcare and Related Personal Services

Natural and Social Science Professionals

Other Drivers and Transport Operatives

Business, Research and Administrative Professionals

Elementary Security Occupations

Legal Professionals

Plant and Machine Operatives

Media Professionals

Librarians and Related Professionals

Source: Understanding Society Wave 8

Subscribe to blog posts

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