The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a significant portion of the workforce working from home. Many employees worked more flexible hours or days, often to balance work with other responsibilities such as home-schooling or childcare.

Before the pandemic, only around 5% of the workforce worked mainly from home but the current situation has escalated remote working at a rapid pace. However, pandemic forms of flexible working are very different from typical flexible working approaches: potentially balancing work with childcare and home-schooling, supporting vulnerable relatives, not to mention working from kitchens or living rooms. There are lessons to be learned about flexible working, but the unusual nature of the situation should be borne in mind. Employers should remember that remote or homeworking is only one form of flexible working. There are many other types of arrangements.

Organisations should be aware of the many potential benefits flexible working has for themselves and their employees. There is wide research and a strong evidence base for how flexibility can support inclusion, wellbeing and sustainability initiatives, help reduce the gender pay gap, attract and retain talent, and increase productivity. Potential concerns about people being overlooked for promotion if working from home more than other colleagues may however, need to be addressed.

Prior to the pandemic, flexible working uptake was slow, but there are indications that many employees will wish to continue some degree of homeworking (or flexible working in general) following the pandemic.

UK employment law sets out a number of minimum standards regarding flexible working that employers must comply with, so they must be aware of these when reviewing their flexible working arrangements. More information is available in our flexible working factsheet and Q&As.

This guide considers how flexible working may be approached over the short and long term, both to support health and safety obligations to employees but also to generate potential people benefits and opportunities for organisations.

Flexible working in the short term

Many employees may have short to medium term needs for flexible working as a result of the current situation. For example, they may be living with a health condition that makes them especially vulnerable, or they may be struggling to balance work and childcare or have ongoing caring responsibilities. Forms of flexible working such as staggered hours can help support workplace safety. 

Addressing short term employee needs

Employers should consider allowing requests for short term flexible working or time-limited changes to terms and conditions of employment. These could include:

  • Temporary changes to their working pattern, for example, for three or six months. At the end of any agreed period, the employee would automatically return to their substantive working pattern unless otherwise agreed.
  • A short and simple application process. For example, aim to make decisions quickly (in no more than a week or two) and provide employees with a simple form to complete.
  • Removing usual policy requirements, such as 26 weeks’ service before a request can be made, or allowing more than one request in a 12-month period. 
  • Outlining specific requests employees may make, for example a reduction of hours or flexi-time.
  • An assumption that requests will be agreed wherever possible where they employee has a good reason for needing the change.
  • Any changes should be mutually agreed, confirmed in writing and have a clear end date.

Where employees are seeking a permanent flexible working arrangement (or seeking one when a temporary change has ended), the organisation’s normal policies and procedures should apply. People managers will need to be briefed and trained on how to handle requests fairly and consistently.

Forms of flexible working to support short and medium term planning

We will be living and working with risks related to COVID-19 for some time to come. There may be limitations to public transport (and employees with concerns about using it), and there could be limitations on the number of people who can work in any single office building. The following forms of flexible working can support social distancing, help maintain hygiene and therefore support a safe workplace.

Homeworking
Recent experience has demonstrated that a great deal of work can be undertaken from the home. However, not everyone has found this transition easy. Some employees have reported finding it difficult to switch off and set boundaries between their work and non-work activities. In some cases this has been compounded by not having a suitable workspace.

Where employees will be undertaking homeworking (in line with the latest UK Government advice or in the longer term), consider:

  • providing guidance or training on maintaining effective work–life balance
  • suitable messaging to counter the possibility of homeworking leading people to work longer hours than they would in the office
  • providing guidance or training to people managers on supporting homeworkers
  • encouraging employees to continue taking annual leave
  • providing general wellbeing support to all employees.

Staggered hours
The UK Government defines staggered hours as when ‘an employee has different start, finish and break times from other workers.’ A staggered hours system may allow workers some discretion, within prescribed limits, in fixing the time when they start and finish work. For example, some employees may work 7am–3pm with others working 10am–6pm. However, once those times have been chosen or agreed with the employer, they remain fixed, making them different from flexitime working. Staggered shifts or hours can help ease congestion on public transport and traffic at certain peak hours, as well as avoiding large groups of people arriving and leaving offices at the end of the day. Staggering employees’ lunch breaks can also help prevent large groups from gathering in rest areas or in queues at local shops/ lunch providers.

The government guidance suggests that from a practical perspective, businesses could consider:

  • splitting staff into teams with alternate days working from home, or splitting across a day and night shift
  • as far as possible, where staff are split into teams, fixing these splits (cohorting), so that where contact is unavoidable, this happens between the same individuals
  • spreading out standard processes, so that only one team needs to be on the premises to complete a task at a given time.

Compressed hours
Compressed hours allow employees to work their normal contracted hours over a reduced number of days. A typical pattern would involve working four longer days and not working on the fifth day. This pattern could reduce the number of employees in the office on some days. Compressed hours can result in employees working long days so it is important to reiterate messages about taking breaks to avoid fatigue.

Adjusted shift rotations
Where employees work in shifts, for example, a rotating shift pattern where one group of employees takes over from another on rotation, processes can be introduced to reduce contact between different shifts and their employees. The same teams should rotate in order so that they always follow the same individuals. Groups starting and leaving work should do so on a phased basis to reduce interaction or crowds forming in certain locations.

This approach may lead to a reduction of flexibility in some aspects; for example, employees may previously have been empowered to swap shifts or self-roster, but this may not be appropriate in the current circumstances.

Any 5 from 7
Many workplaces (especially offices) operate between Monday and Friday. Where it is feasible to do so, opening seven days a week and asking or allowing employees to work some of their physical workplace hours on weekends can reduce the amount of people in the workplace at any time.

Some of these working arrangements may differ from those set out in employees’ contracts of employment. Employers may not make unilateral variations to the terms set out in employee contracts, even when such changes are temporary: to do so would amount to a breach of contract. Even when a contract has a clause allowing employers flexibility to change working patterns, care should be taken as such clauses must still be used in a reasonable way and must not discriminate against any employee with a protected characteristic under the Equality Act.

Changing shifts and working hours
If employers are planning to make permanent changes to shifts and working hours, they will need to follow the rules governing making contractual changes. Depending on the nature of the changes proposed, employers may wish to seek legal advice on their plans and their organisation’s specific contracts of employment.

Employers who attempt unilateral changes to employees’ contracts without agreement will be in breach of contract. An employer can make a change (‘variation’) to an employment contract if:

  • the employee agrees to the change
  • the employee’s representatives (for example, a trade union) agree to the change.

Such changes could include a change to working hours. If an employee’s contract normally involves changing shift patterns, the contract may set out the minimum number of hours that the employee is required to work. Employers may be able to change those shift patterns, provided that the employee is still being asked to work their agreed number of hours and there is no discrimination in the new patterns.

Employers who wish to introduce changes to ways of working should:

  • communicate proposals clearly, setting out as much practical detail as possible and how long any such changes are likely to last
  • brief people managers fully on the proposals, including how to respond to employee concerns and questions
  • include trade unions or employee groups in discussions
  • seek feedback from employees and provide a way for them to ask specific questions or make suggestions
  • identify employees who may be particularly vulnerable and engage specifically with them, either directly or by creating a group of employee representatives.

The specific personal circumstances of employees should always be taken into account – some employees may be unable to change their working hours for a variety of reasons including childcare or family responsibilities. Care should be taken not to discriminate.

Following communication and feedback, the proposals for change should be set out formally in writing to employees and their explicit agreement for change sought. Where agreement is reached, employers may implement the changes – they should keep any new working patterns under review and be prepared to change them as the situation evolves.

Where employees do not agree to the changes, there are other options open to employers, including imposing the changes unilaterally or terminating the existing contract of employment and offering re-engagement on new terms. These actions should be a last resort and any employer considering such action should take legal advice before doing so. You can also refer to our guide on ‘fire and rehire ’.

Flexibility clauses
Some contracts contain clauses that purport to allow changes (usually called ‘flexibility clauses’). A clause which mentions changing times, hours and days of work encourages employees to think the changes are permissible and may make it easier for employers to make changes. However, not all flexibility clauses give employers a legal ability to make unilateral changes. Whilst a necessary mobility clause, for example, may be effective, flexibility must always be in accordance with mutual trust and confidence.

It is risky for any employer to simply vary a contract even if there are specific flexibility clauses which seem to give an employer the power to make the change. Employers need to be reasonable in the changes they make in using flexibility clauses and case law suggests that tribunals interpret what such clauses allow narrowly. Employers should also take care not discriminate against certain individuals or groups of employees. For more information on making a contractual change, see the advice on the Acas website. Employers should also remember the rules governing working hours, flexibility clauses, night workers and rest breaks when making any changes (even if temporary) to shifts and working hours. More information is available on our Working hours and time off work factsheet.

More information about contracts of employment can be found on the terms and conditions of employment topic page.

Discrimination
Statistically, as women are the main childcare providers, imposition of new working patterns may be indirect discrimination. This occurs when an employer implements a working practice, such as a change to shift patterns, which has a detrimental impact on a particular female employee and women in general as the main carers.

The employer has to be able to objectively justify its practice by showing that it has a legitimate business aim and that it couldn’t achieve its aim in a less discriminatory way. Remember that normal discrimination laws apply during the pandemic and so employers should not discriminate in the working patterns they adopt. 

Employers need to keep electronic or paper records which justify its need to change an employee’s shift patterns in that particular way. If there is a less discriminatory way of arranging things, then the new shift pattern is likely to be deemed indirect sex discrimination.

Good practice: things to do

Communication
  • Clearly explain to employees the rationale behind changing shifts or hours 
  • Ensure that the business’s social distancing measures are communicated to all staff.
  • Confirm any agreed changes (even if temporary) to hours or pay in writing.

Ask for feedback, provide support and review

  • Ask employees for input about how changes to shifts or hours might work best.
  • Take people’s personal circumstances into consideration when agreeing staggered shifts or hours.
  • Invest more time in building up and winning over line managers to the new ways of working so they can actively support employees who are being asked to work in a new way.
  • Review your approach to staggered working on a regular basis and make changes based on lessons learnt and feedback.

Longer term planning

The above are just some examples of flexible working arrangements that can support workplace safety in the short term. There are many forms of flexible working (including homeworking, part-time or reduced hours, job shares, flexi-time, compressed or annualised hours) that employers can consider as part of their longer term planning as we continue to deal with the pandemic.

Where an organisation is willing to harness the increased demand for flexible working as an opportunity, they may yield a number of business and employee benefits including increased productivity, workplace inclusion, talent acquisition, employee wellbeing and sustainability.

Opportunities from flexible working for the current context

Our research highlights the opportunities on offer from flexible working methods which could be useful for the current context.

Balancing caring and non-work responsibilities with work
Our prior research shows that flexible working allows employees to take on caring responsibilities without having to give up work. Employees who might have otherwise had to leave their jobs are able to stay in work, and this is a positive. In these times where employees may be caring for children (due to school closures), taking on caring responsibilities for vulnerable people, attempting to balance competing needs and adapting to uncertain circumstances, giving flexibility such as adjusting working hours or enabling temporary job shares will allow employees to keep working despite these new demands.

Adjusting resourcing and skill deployment
Flexibility enables employers to balance their workforce in line with the organisation’s needs with additional agility. As one of our case studies in our Cross-sector insights on enabling flexible working guide said, ‘There are busy times and quieter times and with flexible working you can respond to that.’ (guide p.8). At this uncertain time, employers should look to offer flexibility to build their workforce in line with evolving needs.

Adapting to life’s emergencies
Flexible working enables employees ad hoc flexibility to deal with emergencies when they arise. This type of adaptability is crucial at a time when many employees will be caring for (and potentially home schooling) children. It also allows the flexibility needed in case family members or colleagues fall ill. Allowing flexibility will enable organisations to quickly adapt to accommodate sudden caring responsibilities and illness.

Motivation
Our findings suggest employees working flexibly go beyond the call of duty and feel more motivated to work hard and to give back to the organisation (for example training other staff): ‘Sometimes I work way beyond my hours to get the job done, but the benefit for me is that I can flex that back at another time … It does benefit both ways.’ (guide p.7). At a time when employees will be facing many competing pressures and mounting anxiety, employers should provide the flexibility these employees need. This will also allow employees the space to consider their own wellbeing, which is crucial at this uncertain time.

If all of these opportunities from flexible working are to be realised, there are a number of key areas of consideration.

Making flexible working work

Current circumstances provide organisations with an opportunity to review their approach to flexible working as well as learn from employee experiences of recent months. Consider undertaking a listening exercise in order to understand:

  • What challenges have employees experienced while working remotely and flexibly?
  • What benefits have they experienced?
  • What impact have these changes had on employees’ lives?
  • What aspects of working remotely do employees wish to retain, and what are they keen to lose?

The information gathered can help organisations reflect on and determine their longer-term strategy for flexible working.

An organisation wishing to improve its approach to flexible working should focus on three initial areas. These are organisational culture, policy and manager training.

Organisational culture

Organisational culture can be resistant to change and building a culture of flexibility for the long term is a marathon rather than a sprint. Unfortunately, there can be negative stereotypes associated with flexible workers with research suggesting that flexible workers are often considered to be less committed, cause increased work for others and are more difficult to manage. Some organisation cultures – prior to the COVID-19 outbreak – did not lend themselves to flexible working. For example, many organisations (and people managers) judge people on their presence in the workplace. Other organisations have a propensity for face to face meetings, or had not adopted the technology that would enable flexibility.

Some of the barriers to flexible working, both cultural and practical, have been challenged by the recent months of homeworking. However, some will remain. Organisations, and their HR departments will need to consider how they can create cultures where flexible working can thrive.

The following elements of culture and activities are typically present in organisations where flexible working is working well:

  • high trust
  • performance judged on outcomes rather than presence and availability
  • availability of a range of flexible working options
  • effective communication of flexible working opportunities and ongoing awareness-raising activities
  • flexible working available for all employee groups in principle regardless of job role
  • each request is considered on its own merits
  • supportive senior leaders including visible role models
  • jobs advertised as suitable for flexible working
  • consistent application of policy – for example ensuring all areas of the organisation takes a similar approach to decision making
  • a high level of understanding across the organisation of the benefits of flexible working.

Changing culture means changing attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. This is not necessarily a quick process and will require consistent effort.

HR can play a key role in supporting organisation change. As well as advising on policy and process, HR professionals can encourage their business to be ready for a more flexible future by providing insight, sharing good practice and learning from other organisations and providing constructive challenge. Above all, they can understand the evidence for flexible working and share this internally within their own organisations, using it as a driver for change. More information on organisational culture is available in the factsheet.

Fairness and consistency
Organisations and their people managers need to ensure fairness and consistency in the treatment of all employees whether working flexibly or not, as well as ongoing communication and engagement. Considerations for effective people management should include:

  • effective communication to make sure all employees receive key messages, whether they are in the office or working from home
  • providing managers with guidance, training and support for managing remotely
  • encouraging regular 1-2-1 or ‘check-in’ meetings to monitor wellbeing and reduce any feelings of isolation for homeworkers
  • fair workload distribution and regular reviews of workload and objectives
  • regular team meetings and social spaces to maintain connections and build relationships.

Policy

Any change of approach to flexible working (in the short or long term) may require a review of policy. Where the policy follows the statutory procedures only, the full benefits of flexible working may not be realised. For example, the law only permits employees to request flexible working formally after being employed for 26 weeks. This may discourage employees from applying for a role with a new organisation. Proposed legislative changes around ‘flex for all’ could result in this requirement being removed.

Policy changes that support flexible working include:

  • allowing flexible working requests from ‘day 1’ of employment
  • advertising all roles as open to applications for flexible working
  • a simple application process that does not require employees to specify why they want to work flexibly
  • automatic consideration of transferring existing flexible working arrangements to internal promotions / job role changes 
  • short timescales for considering a request.

Manager training

Providing training to people managers on the benefits of flexible working as well as how to manage flexible workers is one of the most effective ways to increase both the quality and quantity of flexible working arrangements. It will also support the transition to a more flexible future.

Managers hold the key to flexible working: they can either be an enabler and supporter, or a barrier to effective implementation.

Practical aspects of people manager training should include:

  • an overview of the relevant employment law relating to flexible working
  • the organisation’s own policy on flexible working
  • the process for applying – and the line manager’s specific responsibilities within that process.
  • how to assess a job for flexible working potential.
  • the business case for flexible working and why it is so important.

Manager training can be complimented with practical tools such as ‘how to’ guides, case studies, process maps and standard forms. However, simply providing information on policy and process is unlikely to be sufficient to move people towards a more flexible working culture. Managers will also need to understand how to manage flexible workers and a mixed team of office based and remote workers, as well as the many potential business and individual benefits of working more flexibly.

Barriers to overcome

Organisations need to consider the barriers at manager, team and individual levels to help them successfully implement flexible working. The key barriers that need addressing are as follows.

Overcoming barriers for managers
People professionals should provide support and advice to managers, while encouraging them to offer flexible working options as much as possible (in line with current government advice).

Managers may be unclear about how to ‘measure’ work and output during this time, especially if remote or flexible working is new. It’s vital to have a trusting relationship for flexible working to be successful. Ensure managers understand that visibility is not the key to performance and that they explore new ways of communicating, delegating and working with their teams to meet targets and deadlines. Advise line managers to set clear expectations for their team. This could mean sharing examples of how they expect tasks to be done and being clear about deadlines and priorities.

Good communication is vital. In addition to regular catch-ups, advise line managers to ask open questions such as ‘how fulfilled are you feeling in the work you do?’ and ‘how can I support you better?’ to overcome any barriers or communication problems. Managers need to find a balance between allowing flexibility and facilitating collaboration; if team members have no overlapping hours you will need to find ways to overcome this.

Overcoming barriers for teams
People professionals should review ways of working to optimise team performance, relationships and flexible working opportunities. Pay close attention to the following.

Team skills and flexibility
Having a team of multi-skilled workers within the department means flexible working can be accommodated more easily, because employees can be flexible according to the business needs and skills required for the job. This is crucial at a time when workforces will be reduced, and business functions and priorities will be changing. Consider sending employees a questionnaire asking them to highlight other skills they can offer or asking people to volunteer for roles outside of their usual work remit.

Lack of team interactions and networking
Flexible working may lead to fewer colleague interactions and team connections, which in turn was found to lead to flexible workers feeling isolated. This will be especially true as we continue with widespread remote working and social distancing measures. Encourage teams to connect using online tools, by having regular catch ups and making use of technology to keep others informed of their progress on projects and current workloads. Support a healthy level of communication and collaboration, but ensure that employees do not feel under pressure to be ‘always on’.

Lessons and learning
Ensure that learning is captured and transferred from the implementation of flexible working elsewhere in the organisation. Take note of what has worked well and what has not worked well and why, so that managers learn from successes and mistakes.

Additional workload
Support managers with the perceived ‘additional’ load of managing flexible and remote workers: help managers think through how best to manage the team using technology and other ways to capture progress.

Overcoming barriers for individuals
Help individuals understand what flexible working opportunities are appropriate and available at this time. Ensure that individuals who are required to attend a workplace also have flexible working opportunities (for example, the ability to avoid peak hours). You may want to refer to our flexible working poster for ideas on the type of arrangement that will suit the evolving situation.

Communicate with individuals regularly about altering flexible working when necessary, creating boundaries (to ensure they aren’t working too many hours, are having appropriate breaks and have the resources they need). Share flexible working stories from across the business to inspire individuals to try new ways of working.

Think about setting up groups on communication channels to share tips and ideas (for example, ideas for working parents who are trying to juggle childcare). Help individuals understand that they can say ‘no’ and maintain a schedule that suits them as well as the organisation.

Try to allay any career progression concerns by highlighting any training opportunities employees could take advantage of at this time. This may also help with reskilling employees.

Case studies to learn from

As part of the research for the Cross-sector insights on enabling flexible working guide, the CIPD looked at flexible working in several organisations. During this time employers and people professionals may find the insights from the following case studies particularly useful. 

  • Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS Foundation Trust, which found that one-size doesn’t fit all and that flexible working doesn’t automatically mean reducing hours 
  • Lendlease, which learned important lessons about communication and trust between line managers and staff 
  • Schneider Electric, which gained insight into the importance of the relationship between line managers and their teams in making flexible working successful. 

Tried-and-tested flexible working methods
Organisations could consider implementing the following methods.

Team-managed flexible working schedules
Lendlease uses a flexible working rota within a project team (16 team members). Each week one member of the project team takes ownership for the weekly rota and team members pick a morning where they can come in late or an afternoon where they leave early (flexitime). The general culture on a project site was described as ‘we don’t watch the clock either’, so that employees feel they can be flexible if needed. 

Split shifts and job-shares in customer-facing roles
For Enterprise Rent-A-Car, branches and depots are encouraged to be creative when it comes to flexible working – for example, implementing split shift options and job-shares. Some branches have deliberately extended their hours to enable more shift working, thereby creating a win-win for both employees and customers.

Flexibility and homeworking in call centres
Enterprise also allows its call centre workers to work flexible schedules. The call centre is entirely staffed by homeworkers, who control their own flexible work patterns. The organisation analyses call volume and schedules accordingly.

Pharmaceutical Research Associates offers flexible working in their customer services team, which needs to provide 24/7 support to clients. Customer service employees can pick specific shifts that work for them, such as a mixture of early and late shifts. Some customer service staff are also able to work from home, through online portals that provide access to internal and customer systems, allowing them to respond to customer needs.

Flexible working has the potential to bring significant benefits to organisations and their employees. It can both support the return to the workplace on a practical level, help employees to cope with ongoing issues relating to the pandemic and help to maintain hygiene and social distancing whilst the virus still presents a considerable risk.

In the longer term, it can enable organisations to achieve some of their key people objectives and outcomes including talent acquisition, productivity, employee engagement, retention, gender pay and sustainability. Flexible working will therefore be a critical issue for HR professionals in the months to come and beyond.

More information from the CIPD on enabling flexible working, including successful case studies, can be found on the flexible working topic page.

DISCLAIMER: The materials in this guidance are provided for general information purposes and do not constitute legal or other professional advice. While the information is considered to be true and correct at the date of publication, changes in circumstances may impact the accuracy and validity of the information. The CIPD is not responsible for any errors or omissions, or for any action or decision taken as a result of using the guidance. You should consult a professional adviser for legal or other advice where appropriate.

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