Flexible working is on the rise, giving employees flexibility on where, when and the hours they work. It's traditionally been associated with the needs of parents and carers, but increasingly organisations are recognising the business benefits of a more flexible way of working.
This factsheet discusses flexible working as a strategic tool organisations can use to improve performance and productivity. It outlines the different types of flexible working arrangements available, including part-time and compressed hours, mobile working and career breaks. It looks at the potential benefits of flexible working, both direct and indirect. Finally, it offers the UK legal perspective and some ideas on how flexible working can be implemented, how common barriers can be overcome, and how HR can support staff opting for more flexible working arrangements.
We believe HR can make a strong case for using flexibility as a strategic tool to support improved individual and business performance through developing greater diversity, brand competiveness and increasing levels of job satisfaction and commitment from workers.
The supply of quality flexible working jobs falls well short of demand. By restricting opportunities to work flexibly at the point of hire, employers are cutting themselves off from a valuable proportion of the candidate market.
Despite the potential gains, and an increase in more informal flexible working, our research has found the extent of flexible working has not increased significantly in the UK in the last decade. There is an opportunity to do much more.
Organisations should examine the attitudinal and behavioural barriers to effective flexible working that exist in their own workplaces. They need to be creative and open-minded about flexibility and promote mutual trust in the flexible working arrangements adopted, supported with appropriate people management systems and processes.
We are currently co-chairing a Government Flexible Working Taskforce to promote wider understanding and implementation of inclusive flexible work and working practices, bringing together policy-makers, employer groups, Unions and employee representative groups, research groups and professional bodies.
We're also an official supporter of the Working Forward campaign to support pregnant women and new parents at work. We offer flexible working as an option for everyone within the organisation from the very first day of their employment and positively advertise its availability in all our job adverts.
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What is flexible working?
‘Flexible working’ describes a type of working arrangement which gives a degree of flexibility on how long, where, when and at what times employees work.
Flexible working practices include:
Part-time working: work is generally considered part-time when employers are contracted to work anything less than full-time hours.
Term-time working: a worker remains on a permanent contract but can take paid/unpaid leave during school holidays.
Job-sharing: a form of part-time working where two (or occasionally more) people share the responsibility for a job between them.
Flexitime: allows employees to choose, within certain set limits, when to begin and end work.
Compressed hours: compressed working weeks (or fortnights) don't necessarily involve a reduction in total hours or any extension in individual choice over which hours are worked. The central feature is reallocation of work into fewer and longer blocks during the week.
Annual hours: the total number of hours to be worked over the year is fixed but there is variation over the year in the length of the working day and week. Employees may or may not have an element of choice over working patterns.
Working from home on a regular basis: workers regularly spend time working from home.
Mobile working/teleworking: this permits employees to work all or part of their working week at a location remote from the employer's workplace.
Career breaks: career breaks, or sabbaticals, are extended periods of leave – normally unpaid – of up to five years or more.
Commissioned outcomes: there are no fixed hours, but only an output target that an individual is working towards.
Zero-hours contracts: an individual has no guarantee of a minimum number of working hours, so they can be called upon as and when required and paid just for the hours they work. Find out more about zero-hours contracts.
The list above isn't exhaustive. Flexible working can include other practices for example employee self-rostering, shift-swapping or taking time off for training.
Our Employee Outlook: Focus on commuting and flexible working report provides figures on the use of flexible working practices both from employers’ and employees’ perspectives. It found that the most common forms of flexible working in organisations, in order of popularity, were:
- part-time working
- careers breaks and study leave.
Flexible working arrangements can be formal or informal. Some organisations choose to amend the written employment contract when new working arrangements are put in place, and/or include flexible working policies in the employer’s handbook. However some forms of flexible working, such as working from home, are likely to be offered informally, for example in agreement with an employee’s line manager.
Our Megatrends: flexible working research shows that the uptake of most types of flexible working has largely plateaued in the UK over the last decade, even with the legal right to request being available to all. There is evidence in the report of an increase in more informal flexible working, such as people working from home on an ad hoc basis, but there's an opportunity to do much more.
The potential benefits of flexible working
Flexible working can lead to direct and indirect business benefits. The direct business benefits include savings on office space, for example, using technological advances to allow remote working and hot desking. Flexible working also allows a better match between business resources and demand, for example serving customers on a 24/7 basis. In particular, multi-skilling, freelance and part-time working, and alternative shift patterns can increase efficiency and are sometimes referred to as ’agile’ working'.
Indirect business benefits are achieved through improved employee job satisfaction and well-being. Research has shown that flexible workers have a higher level of job satisfaction, commitment and are more likely to increase discretionary effort compared to those who do not work flexibly. Flexible working can also reduce absence rates and allows employees to manage disability and long-term health conditions, as well as supporting their mental health and stress, as shown in our 2018 Health and well-being at work survey.
Flexible working options can also be attractive for new talent, especially as employee expectations change with regard to their jobs, careers and work-life balance, and demographic changes affect employees’ needs to balance their job with other responsibilities such as caring.
Our report Employee Outlook Focus: commuting and flexible working describes the top three benefits of flexible working most frequently cited by employees as:
- It enables better work-life balance.
- It helps reduce the amount of stress/pressure employees feel under.
- It has been a factor in employees staying with their current employer.
As Members of the Flexible Working Taskforce, we are collectively using our ability to reach and influence hundreds of thousands of employers to encourage them to advertise jobs as flexible by using the strapline 'Happy to talk Flexible Working' in their job advertisements regardless of level or pay grade. See more about the Flexible Working Taskforce and it’s guidance for organisations.
Implementing flexible working practices
Employers may face a number of barriers to effectively communicating and implementing flexible working. These include:
- overcoming concerns about operational pressures and meeting customer requirements
- line managers’ current attitudes towards flexible working
- handling colleagues concerns about the impact of other peoples’ flexible working on them
- the existing organisational culture
- a lack of support at senior levels
- an inability to measure employees’ performance by outputs rather than by hours.
To help implement flexible working effectively, organisations should:
- establish a clear process for flexible working
- ensure that there are defined roles and responsibilities for employees, line managers and HR
- assess the current level of support offered to line managers and ensure it's sufficient
- invest in ongoing communication and raising awareness
- assess how supportive of flexible working organisational processes are, for example, performance measurement and management, recruitment and job design
- assess how conducive the organisation culture is to flexible working – and take action accordingly
- make use of pilots when introducing new initiatives, and trial periods for individual flexible working arrangements to highlight potential problems
- build mechanisms to monitor and evaluate progress with flexible working
- advertise job vacancies as being open to flexible working - many highly skilled individuals are looking for flexibility in working hours.
Supporting homeworking and teleworking
If employees aren’t working in a typical ‘office’ and they’re working away from their colleagues and line managers, it’s important to consider the following:
Resources and working styles - teleworkers and homeworkers are generally provided with a computer with an Internet connection, a printer, a mobile phone and office furniture. Employees need to be able to demonstrate time management skills, the ability to work without close supervision, self-motivation and flexibility.
Communication with others - the nature of teleworking means that employees are often invisible and work non-standard hours. Thus the emphasis is on task-oriented working – getting defined jobs done - and trust. Clear and effective communication channels are therefore vital, as is the need to keep in touch with colleagues and avoid isolation.
Trust - for line managers who may be office-based or teleworkers/homeworkers themselves, trust becomes more important than control. Some may have problems adjusting and they may need training. Managers not knowing how to manage workers at home is a primary barrier to change.
Employee rights - individuals’ employment contracts may need to be amended by agreement to reflect teleworking/ homeworking. Teleworkers/homeworkers must be treated the same as office-based staff with equal access to development and promotion opportunities. If there’s a trade union, it will need to be consulted to ensure that these workers are treated equally.
Health and safety - the same rules for health and safety apply to home offices as to conventional workplaces, so employers need to ensure that the office space and equipment are used safely and that teleworkers / homeworkers are sufficiently knowledgeable about health and safety.
Guidance to help both employers and employees deal with the implications of working from home is available from the Health and Safety Executive.
The legal position
In April 2003, the UK Government introduced the ‘right to request flexible working’ which historically applied to parents and certain other carers. The legislation now includes all employees with at least 26 weeks' continuous employment, regardless of parental or caring responsibilities. Employers have a duty to consider a request in a reasonable manner and can only refuse a request for flexible working if they can show that one of a specific number of grounds apply. Acas has issued guidance and a Code of Practice for employers on handling such requests in a reasonable manner.
Similar procedures apply to requests for flexibility with time off work for study or training.
The right to request flexible working doesn't apply to some categories of worker, for example certain agency workers.
The shared parental leave scheme introduced in April 2015 may give parents some additional flexibility - listen to our podcast.
The CIPD and the Equality and Human Rights Commission have collaborated on a number of short videos for employers who have signed up to the Working Forward Campaign to support pregnant women and new mothers at work.
CIPD members can find out more in our Requesting flexible working law Q&As.
Useful contacts and further reading
Books and reports
ACAS. (2015) Flexible working and work-life balance. London: Acas.
CLARKE, S. and HOLDSWORTH, L. (2017) Flexibility in the workplace: implications of flexible work arrangements for individuals, teams and organisations. Research paper 03/17. London: Acas.
FAMILY FRIENDLY WORKING HOURS TASKFORCE. (2010) Flexible working: working for families, working for business. [London]: The Taskforce.
STEWART, E. and BIVAND, P. (2016) How flexible hiring could improve business performance and living standards. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
WORKING FAMILIES and BRIGHT HORIZONS (2018) Modern families index 2018. London: Working Families.
CROSSLAND, H. (2018) How should employers approach flexible working requests?People Management (online). 30 October.
De MENEZES, L.M. and KELLIHER, C. (2017) Flexible working, individual performance and employee attitudes: comparing formal and informal arrangements. Human Resource Management. vol 57, no 6, Nov-Dec. pp1050-1070. Reviewed in In a Nutshell, issue 73.
GREENHALGH, D. (2019) The future of flexible working. People Management (online). 9 January.
PERETZ, H., FRIED, Y. and LEVI, A. (2018) Flexible work arrangements, national culture, organisational characteristics, and organisational outcomes: a study across 21 countries. Human Resource Management Journal. Vol 28, No 1, January. pp182-200. Reviewed in In a Nutshell, issue 75.
CIPD members can use our online journals to find articles from over 300 journal titles relevant to HR.
Members and People Management subscribers can see articles on the People Management website.
This factsheet was last updated by Lisa Ayling, solicitor and employment law specialist, and Claire McCartney.
Claire McCartney: Diversity and Inclusion Adviser (Maternity cover)
Claire is Diversity & Inclusion Policy Adviser at the CIPD having previously been Adviser for Resourcing and Talent Planning at the Institute for several years. For the last two years she has been running her own research and consultancy organisation.
Claire specialises in the areas of diversity & inclusion, flexible working, resourcing and talent management. She has also conducted research into meaning and trust at work, age diversity, workplace carers and enterprise and has worked on a number of international projects. She is the author of several reports and articles and regularly presents at seminars and conferences.
Prior to her roles at the CIPD, Claire was Principal Researcher at Roffey Park where she conducted research projects into a variety of topics including Roffey Park’s annual Management Agenda survey, work-life balance, flexible working, employee volunteering, talent management, and diversity. Claire has also worked with a range of clients on tailored research needs.
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