Flexible working remains a mainstay of the UK labour market
11 Mar 2015
Andrea Broughton, IES Principal Research Fellow
Over the past decade, social and demographic changes, in addition to the rise of new technology, have meant that flexible working and worklife balance have become mainstream issues in the UK labour market. In particular, the internet has enabled employees to work remotely in order to better combine work and private life, including family life. This has especially enabled women to participate more fully in the labour market, allowing them to balance family and childcare commitments with work. Popular forms of flexible working include part-time working, flexibility in the organisation of working time, job-sharing and remote working.
The benefits of flexible working to the employee are clear. However, flexible working can also bring considerable business benefits for the employer, including increased loyalty from the workforce, improved productivity and motivation, and the flexibility needed to respond to customer needs, for example by providing longer opening hours. By enabling employees to work flexibly, employers are also able to attract and retain talented employees who would otherwise not be able to participate in the labour market.
The fourth work-life balance employer survey
The most recent UK survey of work-life balance, researched and written by IFF in collaboration with IES1, gives an overview of the current state of play. It is the latest of four employer work-life balance surveys, with the others published in 2000, 2003 and 2007. The 2013 survey found that over the six years since the previous survey, there have not been significant increases in either take-up or availability of flexible working. It notes that this partly reflects the fact that flexible working is now very well established, with 97 per cent of workplaces offering at least one form of flexible working. The number of flexible working arrangements available increases with establishment size, and public and third sector organisations tend to offer a larger number of flexible working arrangements than their private sector counterparts.
The survey found that there have been some changes in the types of flexible working practices used by employees. For example, the use of job-sharing fell from 59 per cent to 54 per cent between 2007 and 2013, but the practice of reducing working time for a limited period and the use of flexitime have increased, the latter particularly in the public sector, where almost half of workplaces now have at least one employee working in this way.
The increased incidence of working-time reduction for a limited period may be a reaction to the economic climate of the past five years, with employers offering reductions in working time as an alternative to redundancy, in order to retain experienced staff.
The right to request flexible working
One of the main legislative changes in the area of flexible working in recent years has been the introduction of the statutory right to request flexible working. This is a right to request only and the employer is under no obligation to agree, although they must give well-founded reasons for a refusal. This right, originally offered to employees with children, was extended to all employees with 26 weeks’ service in June 2014. According to the 2013 survey, 40 per cent of employers had received such requests from employees over the preceding 12 months, most often concerning a request for working reduced hours for a limited period. Only 9 per cent of employers receiving requests to work flexibly refused them.
Employers were asked whether they had a written policy that covered flexible working: just over half said that they had (covering 75 per cent of UK employees), with larger and public sector organisations, as well as those with a trade union presence, more likely to have a policy. However, almost 75 per cent of employers said that they did not have a written procedure covering submitting and assessing a request for flexible working, with most saying that they treated each case according to the circumstances.
In around one-third of organisations, the line manager or supervisor makes the decision about flexible working requests. In a further third, it is a person with HR responsibility; in the remaining third it depends on the circumstances. Around 55 per cent of organisations said that they had not given any training to managers on how to manage employees who were working flexibly.
Positive attitude towards flexible working
Employers appear to be increasingly positive towards flexible working and work-life balance, recognising the business benefits that flexible working can bring. The survey notes that, compared with the 2007 survey, ’there had been an increase in positive views concerning the impact of flexible working on the workforce and human resource management issues (such as employee motivation and commitment, employee relations, absence reduction, labour turnover, recruitment and productivity), suggesting that there may be growing acceptance of flexible working among both employers and the workforce as a whole’.
Overall, there is a strong link between a positive view of flexible working and the number of flexible working policies offered by the employer. However, it is, of course, difficult to know whether this is due to employers appreciating the positive impact of flexible working practices, having had greater direct experience of them, or due to employers with positive attitudes towards flexible working practices being more likely to offer them. A total of 56 per cent of employers said that the impact of flexible working arrangements was very or fairly positive on their business, compared with only 9 per cent who said that the impact was negative.
Working time is always a prominent issue in discussions about managing flexibility, particularly in light of recent debates about zero hours contracts and on-call working. The survey found that 17 per cent of employers used zero hours contracts, with a predominance in the third sector, hotels and restaurants, education, health and social work, and manufacturing industry.
One in 10 employers said that they had non-managerial employees who had worked more than 48 hours per week over a continuous four-month period or longer in the past 12 months. In half of these organisations, no non-managerial employees had signed an individual opt-out from the Working Time Regulations in relation to the 48-hour working week. However, given that there are some exemptions from the requirements of the Regulations, it is impossible to calculate the extent of non-compliance.
Just over 20 per cent of employers said that they had employees who were contractually required to engage in on-call working, and this type of working was more prevalent in the public sector. Finally, 45 per cent of employers using on-call working included on-call hours when calculating an employee’s working time for the week.
This overview of the current availability and take-up of flexible working in UK workplaces shows that flexible working remains an important element of how work is organised. Despite the recent difficult economic times, it is clear that employees are benefiting from this flexibility and employers are happy to continue to offer it, mindful of the business benefits that it can bring. Given the increasing flexibility brought about by technology, flexible working, certainly in terms of location, is likely to develop further in the future.
1. (2014) Fourth work-life balance employer survey (2013). Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Research Paper No. 184.