The Future of Flexible Working
Over the last few years, the spotlight has been shone on flexible working more than ever before and, to a degree, forcing employers to be more generous in their offering of flexible working options.
Certain forms of flexible working have appeared much more obvious than others, the big one clearly being the ability to work from home.
But where are we now and where are we heading?
The Legal Position
The current position is that all employees have the legal right to request flexible working, known as ‘making a statutory application’, provided they have worked for the same employer for at least 26 weeks. The employer must then deal with the request in a reasonable manner, for example by:
- Assessing the advantages and disadvantages of the request;
- Holding a meeting to discuss the request with the employee; and
- Offering an appeal process.
However, change is afoot on the statute book with the introduction of the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill. Although it was brought about as a Private Members’ Bill by backbench Labour MP Yasmin Qureshi, the Bill has since received government backing and is more or less guaranteed to clear the Parliamentary hurdles to be enacted in law.
The change in law will reduce the qualifying period for an employee to make a flexible working request from 26 weeks to day one of employment.
We have, in recent years seen the introduction of what we would now view as staples of flexible working. These are discussed below alongside some newer policies that are starting to surface in the world of work.
Work from Home
When the work from home policy was introduced to the UK almost 3 years ago, it was thought that this would be the future of work. Its popularity is obvious – a policy that allows employees a better work-life balance by ensuring they are at home for the kids coming home from school, the ability to cook themselves a fresh lunch in their own kitchen rather than going round the corner from the office for a not so fresh meal deal, and, of course, avoiding the long commutes to and from the office every day.
However, 3 years on and this policy is not without its controversies. Many employers have amended their work from home policy as part of their staff handbooks to reflect a focus on hybrid work to encourage a return to the office. However, we have seen an increase in job seekers stating that they would turn down a job offer if it didn’t adopt a work from home policy in some form. On the flip side of the coin, since returning to the office, a number of employees say they have benefitted hugely and are enjoying being back in the workplace.
But, despite the controversies, most employers continue to offer the option to work from home and they too have reaped the benefits. Working from home has resulted in increased productivity amongst staff with the main reason being fewer distractions. There is also, more obviously, the reduced overheads as a number of employers are either looking to, or have already, reduced their office floor space.
The 4 Day Week
Employees and employers became settled with work from home policies in what was seen as a huge shift in flexible working and the absolute pinnacle of the new world of work. Fast-forward and enter the 4 day week. The idea is that employees would work 4 days a week while getting paid the same and earning the same benefits, but with the same workload.
Advocates of the 4 day week suggest that implementing such a policy increases worker satisfaction and therefore productivity by operating with fewer meetings and more independent work. In 2022, dozens of companies in the UK took part in a 6-month pilot programme of the 4 day week and 86% of them are now planning to make the change permanent after hailing the experiment “extremely successful”.
Health and Fitness
Corporate gym memberships and free fruit in the office have been around for a long time, but the face of health and fitness is changing fast. The number of people taking up gym memberships is on the increase, more and more people are taking part in other sports, people are eating fresh and healthier foods and, in some cases, people are moving away from city centres (especially where working from home allows them).
These changes have not gone unnoticed by employers who are offering a range of new health and fitness initiatives. Recent research has found that employees showed keen interest in mindfulness sessions, yoga memberships, meditation and mental well-being. 85% of employees also said they’d be more likely to stay in their role if their employer focused more on well-being. As an incentive, some employers are allowing their staff one hour a day, two to three days a week to go to the gym anytime they like in the working day. This is a policy proving to be popular with parents and those with other caring responsibilities outside of work.
The Digital Nomad
As the world of work becomes more tech friendly and working from home has become the norm, employees are starting to ask where else they could do their job just as well. Desk phones have been replaced with mobile phones, computers with laptops, face-to-face meetings with Zoom calls and wet signatures with DocuSign.
Digital nomading has seen an increase in popularity with employers and employees alike. Essentially, it allows an employee to remain employed by their current employer in their current position but to carry their work out in another country. Europe has proved to be a hugely popular destination since Brexit and given that the time difference is usually no more than one hour. Portugal, Spain and Germany have proved to be the most popular and have widened their Digital Nomad Visa eligibility to meet demand. The advantages and disadvantages more or less mirror those of work from home policies with the addition of employers being able to cast the talent net wider.
Major companies have embraced limitless leave in the last few years to test how successful it could be. Many are taking the approach by giving employees workloads to complete in their own time and they can take as much unlimited paid leave off in return.
Research has shown that employees are more productive when offered unlimited leave as they are less likely to burn out while also being more likely to give 100% to the job. They are also less likely to have time off sick and more likely to stay with the company. The research has also been proven right as most companies that have adopted a policy of unlimited leave have since reported significant revenue growth.
However, there is also the risk that by not giving employees a set number of days to take off per year, many will actually end up taking less than they usually do or are legally entitled to. Attention should therefore be paid to staff wellbeing. There is also the need for clear policies to be put in place so that your employees know what is expected of them to ensure the policy works well. HR software to manage and approve leave requests is also likely to be a useful tool.
So, where are we?
It is clear that despite the conversation around flexible working and the introduction of policies we once thought may never see the light of day, there is a push to go further and for employers to think outside the box and more creatively with their offering.
For employers who are considering implementing any of the above or other flexible working policies, they should ensure that it is set out in clear terms in their staff handbook and policy manuals.