Remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic has led many people to re-evaluate how, when and where they work. As such, we’ve designed this guide to help employers and line managers manage the expected increase in flexible working requests from employees, dispel certain myths surrounding flexible working, and help you to consider creative flexible working solutions that go beyond simply working remotely.

Flexible working has clear business benefits for organisations and individuals

Quality flexible working can help attract talent, improve employee job satisfaction and loyalty, reduce absenteeism, enhance wellbeing, and make businesses more responsive to change. 

There are many flexible working options for employees to choose from, many of which can help enable a safer return to a post-COVID workplace:

  • Staggered hours: This type of flexible working arrangement sees an employee having different start, finish and break times compared to other workers. It could be beneficial for service or manufacturing staff, who often can’t work from home but want more flexibility. Staggered shifts or hours also reduces the likelihood of large numbers of people travelling at peak times and groups of employees arriving and leaving at the end of the day. Staggering employees’ lunch breaks can help prevent groups from gathering in rest areas or in queues at local shops/lunch providers, thus reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission. A staggered hours system allows workers some discretion, within prescribed limits, to fix the times when they start and finish work. However, once those times have been chosen or agreed with the employer, they remain unchanged, making them different from flexitime working.
  • Flexitime: Choosing when to start and end work, often while maintaining a core set of hours, such as 10am to 4pm every day. 
  • Part-time working: Reducing one’s hours, often by working fewer days a week
  • Compressed hours: The central feature here is the reallocation of work into fewer and longer blocks during the week – for example, working full-time hours over fewer days.
  • Job sharing: A form of part-time working where two (or sometimes more) people share the responsibility for a job between them and split the hours.
  • Hybrid working: This form of flexible working – where employees travel into the office for some of the week and work remotely for the remainder – is likely to become more prevalent. It also has the benefit of allowing organisations to save money by reducing their office space. With few precedents to follow, a hybrid working model will require planning, organisation and experimentation if it is to be successful. Make sure you tailor it to the unique needs of the individual, team or department, with effective communication put in place throughout. 

Planning a move to hybrid working? Read our latest advice for organisations

Understand the full spectrum of flexible working arrangements by downloading our #Flexfrom1st infographic

How to respond to flexible working requests

Here we outline 11 recommendations to help organisations encourage a culture of flexible working while ensuring requests are dealt with in a fair, consistent manner:

  1. Make sure you revisit your flexible working policies to ensure they accurately reflect the options available.
  2. Clarify the benefits of flexible working to the organisation and to individuals
  3. Find the compelling hook or business imperative that will gain traction in the organisation. 
  4. Communicate to dispel myths around what flexible working is and who it is for, share successes and build communities. 
  5. Try to encourage a creative approach to flexible working for all employees – even in job roles that haven’t traditionally been seen as suitable for flexible working. Other organisations have successfully done so before. 
  6. Aim to hire flexibly and design the jobs to suit the flexible pattern (that is, make sure full-time jobs are not squeezed into part-time hours). 
  7. Ensure ongoing access to development and career conversations for flexible workers. 
  8. Set the organisational context and consider organisational facilitators and barriers, including creating a supportive organisational culture, underpinned by leadership and HR support. 
  9. Gain manager buy-in through communicating benefits, sharing success stories, and providing support and guidance. 
  10. Consider the facilitators and barriers at manager, team and individual levels. 
  11. Measure and evaluate flexible working, and learn from trials using quantitative and qualitative measures.

These recommendations were informed by our research into the approaches organisations have taken to flexible work in different sectors and industries. Download our guide and case studies to explore the insights in depth. 

Trial flexible hours regardless of sector

Employees whose jobs aren’t ordinarily associated with flexible working might feel aggrieved by those they observe in industries which enjoy a greater degree of flexibility. You can improve the motivation and engagement of these workers by offering greater flexibility of hours. CIPD research has shown that it’s possible to implement flexible working in an effective, creative way even in sectors like healthcare, transportation, education, construction, transport, automation, and manufacturing – sectors seldom viewed as ‘flexible’.  

The following pointers are drawn from our practical guidance on the flexible working lessons learnt from the pandemic, based on research conducted by Dr Charlotte Gascoigne:

  • Make sure you involve line managers in the process from the get-go; they can differentiate the tasks employees perform at specific hours from those they can tackle outside these hours. To maximise flexibility of hours, think about how tasks can be shared or covered at the team level as well as within jobs. 
  • Proactively embrace a team-based approach to designing work, supporting managers to co-ordinate patterns of availability between team members to cover the required time slots. 
  • Multi-skilling or building ‘substitutability’ between team members can help create more flexibility of hours, even in jobs with very specific hours requirements. Look to develop multiple skills and provide training to support teams to fill in and substitute for one another. 
  • To cover specific hours of service, support line managers to involve the team in agreeing to – and then rostering – shifts and working patterns. This can be a useful principle to follow wherever the hours of operation prove longer than the employees’ contracted hours. This is reasonably straightforward in 24/7 environments or those with long operating hours (such as retail or customer contact centres), but it may be helpful to roster the ‘shoulder’ periods in organisations which operate Monday to Friday, 8am to 6pm. 
  • Make it an organisational responsibility to ask people about their flexibility needs – maybe at annual review or budget time – rather than reactively waiting for individuals to make requests. This is particularly prescient when it comes to the types of work that are heavily dependent on hours; being proactive in assessing their needs gives employees’ a framework to think through the options that work for the needs of the organisation too. 
  • Work with managers to build in an understanding of everyone’s preferred working patterns. Present this as a consultation process and manage expectations about what’s possible. Where the work allows little flexibility of hours across the team, find out what each individual’s most cherished requirement is – the one thing that would make the biggest difference to them and their lives. 
  • Wherever teams need to share the cover of operating hours, invest in team rostering software and apps which give individuals as much input as possible into their working patterns. Individual input is critical for creating work–life balance in these environments. 
  • Be clear about the degree of formality involved in any change to flexibility of hours, and whether this is a permanent arrangement or a change to terms of employment. Employee consultation is the key principle, and your policy needs to articulate your expectations and practice. 

Explore Dr Charlotte Gascoigne’s research to understand the strategies needed to make a success of hybrid working. See the accompanying guidance, produced for HR and line managers, for the practical lessons learnt from the pandemic.

For the key considerations involved in specifically changing working hours, see our guide on returning to the workplace after COVID-19.

A note on legal considerations

If you’re planning to make permanent changes to shifts and working hours, you’ll need to follow the rules governing contractual changes, as 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 agree to the change (for example, a trade union).

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

Find out more about contracts of employment on our terms and conditions of employment topic page.

Summary

Remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic has led many people to re-evaluate how, when and where they work. 

Communicating the different types of work arrangements you offer is key to managing flexible working requests in a fair, feasible manner – especially for roles which do not historically lend themselves to working remotely. Involve your teams in these processes and ensure line managers are on board at all times; this’ll help employees work collaboratively when they may be working different hours or present in the physical workspace on different days compared to their colleagues.

Trial flexible working arrangements for a set period of time; this’ll show you what works and pinpoint any problems which might arise. Any issues highlighted in the trial can then be adjusted before making anything permanent. Remember – flexible working is possible across many sectors

Going forward, making flexible working requests a day-one right for employees will be transformational in allowing people to work how, when and where they feel they perform at their best. It will also help forward-thinking organisations become more competitive to attract the best and most diverse talent.

Pledge your support to #FlexFrom1st

We’re calling on organisations and government to make the right to request flexible working a day-one right. Here’s some caption inspiration to get you started – just copy and paste it into your social post to pledge your organisation’s support:

I/We support the new @CIPD #FlexFrom1st campaign to make requesting #FlexibleWorking a day-one right! 46% of employees in Britain don’t work flexibly in their current role. This inequality must end! Join the campaign. http://bit.ly/F13xFr0m1st  

Explore our related content

Top