Date: 05/03/19 | Duration: 00:20:43

Flexible working includes various working arrangements such as part time, flexitime, compressed hours and working from home to name but a few. With UK Prime Minister Theresa May's support the Flexible Working Taskforce was established to widen the availability and take-up of flexible working and is chaired by the CIPD. In this episode we’ll explore the work of the Taskforce and the CIPD's investigations into flexible working including design, availability, visibility, and productivity. We capture ideas and insights from Peter Cheese and Claire McCartney from the CIPD, Kamal Shergill, Dan Kieran, Christine Armstrong, and Margaret Heffernan.

Philippa Lamb: Flexible working is hard to define. Flexi-time, part-time, home working, they're all part of it and there are of course many other ways to work that don’t involve a 9–5 workday. Prime Minister, Theresa May, is a fan, last year she told employers she wanted to see all jobs advertised as flexible from day one unless there were solid business reasons not to. That led to a new flexible working Taskforce and not a moment too soon as in January this year the charity Carers UK published a startling claim that over 600 people leave their jobs every day because of the demands of being a carer. But most employers still think there are barriers to flexible working, even if there are benefits too and culture and resistance from management are common blockers, alongside workers’ worries about career progression and of course pay.

CIPD Chief Executive Peter Cheese is co-chairing that new Taskforce, here he is explaining what he hopes to achieve.

Peter Cheese: So the remit of the flexible Taskforce is to review all of the thinking and practice and principles and down to potential policy of flexible working.

PL: So who’s involved?

PC: First of all it’s co-chaired by me as Chief Executive of the CIPD with BEIS, so the senior civil servant in the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy. We have most other major government departments involved, so DWP, Treasury, the Government Equalities Office, groups like that, and we have the TUC, the CBI, ACAS.

PL: So it’s up and running isn’t it, has anything happened so far?

PC: Yes it’s been up and running for about six months now and the way we’ve approached it is to think about an employment lifecycle, all the way from recruitment and through retention and so forth. So one of the first things we did was to promote flexible working at the point of recruitment, and so Working Families, which is also on the Taskforce, had come up with a hashtag of #happy to talk flexible working. Then we said, let’s promote that through all of our channels and say to organisations, ‘Put that hashtag onto all of your job recruitment adverts which we’re seeing quite a lot of uptake on already.

PL: What’s happening next? 

PC: So next we’re into big, and where it does start to get really interesting I suppose in many ways, a debate about these different forms of flexible working. So once somebody’s come in okay what are the forms of flexible working? Of course it ranges from a discussion on hours, short contracted hours, compressed hours. It can of course be reflected in terms of location, where I work, but it also can be reflected in who is doing the job. So are we job sharing? We haven’t made a lot of progress on flexible working in recent years, in fact the reason for the setup of the Taskforce is the national data from ONS shows that flexible working has plateaued even since the time of the Right to Request. So we said, all right let’s start almost on the other end of the spectrum which is well why wouldn’t flexible working be the norm? 

PL: The CIPD is soon to publish its own investigation into flexible working and Claire McCartney, who’s diversity and inclusion adviser at CIPD is here to dig into the findings with Kamal Shergill who’s people services manager at the construction company United Living. Thanks for coming in. So Claire, I think it’s 2014 isn’t it since we all had the right to ask employers for flexibility. 

Claire McCartney: That's right. 

PL: How many people are actually doing it do we know? 

CM: Well we’ve recently released some Megatrends research which actually says that the number of people taking out the formal right to request has actually plateaued in the last ten years, so I think what we’re seeing actually is a reduction in those taking it up formally but more people doing so informally, which is creating its own dynamics actually in organisations. 

PL: And do we know who is most likely to ask for it? 

CM: Well I think probably from a formal perspective it’s more likely to be those that are thinking about returning to work or have particular responsibilities, so they need that formally. 

PL: So women mostly? 

CM: Potentially women or carers, but what we’re also seeing is that actually more people than ever want flexibility. 

PL: And age-wise, I mean obviously it’s across the board but there's quite a lot of young and there's quite a lot of older aren’t there? 

CM: Yeah absolutely. I mean we know from time-wise research that 87% actually want to work flexibly but only 11% at the moment of organisations offer quality flexible roles. 

PL: It’s a huge gap that isn’t it. I mean Kamal I know your company has made flexibility a priority why did you do that? 

Kamal Shergill: I think for us the recruitment market is pretty tight, we’re competing with a lot of other companies for the best calibre staff, so for us to get the best candidates we wanted to offer it and open it up. But not only in terms of recruitment it was also important for us in terms of retention. So it’s sometimes the one think that will keep a fantastic member of staff for us. 

PL: And when did you start this focus on flex? 

KS: It’s been about a year or so in terms of development so the process has been that we’ve set up a steering group which has champions from across the business and we’ve got executive buy-in to it and we do regular communications so that everybody knows what’s going on and we’ve got a clear process in place for measurement of impact as well. 

PL: So how can we make flexible work more widely available? Well the CIPD and Jericho Chambers are currently working on a project called The Future of Work is Human. At one of their events we put that question to three experts: authors, Dan Kieran and Christine Armstrong, and the event chair, fellow author and expert on organisation culture and leadership, Margaret Heffernan. Here’s Christine sharing her thoughts on the need for more flexibility. 

Christine Armstrong: So the structure of the way that we work no longer works because we have modelled an environment where we expect broadly there to be a dad, male breadwinner, out working 9–5 with a partner, wife at home taking care of the house, the children, the parents and anything else. And we’ve added into that always on, so instead of working 9–5 we’re working from when we go to sleep and we’ve also added an expectation that both or all members, or adult members of the household will work and that's the way that our mortgages and rent are structured and the way that we make our lives sustainable. So for me flexible work is a really, really important part of the question but really what I worry about or think about a lot is how do we create boundaries around work? Actually I think what we need to think about are lots of different ways for us to be able to focus on work when we’re working and then be able to walk away from work when we’re not and too often when we talk about flexibility or I interview people who have flexible work they say, ‘Well I get paid for a three day week but of course I work five,’ and that's not the kind of flexibility we need. 

PL: And here’s Margaret talking about the barriers. 

Margaret Heffernan: Well one of the barriers to flexible working of course is bosses’ mythology or fantasy about how unproductive they are, how it’s really skiving off, how if they can't see you you’re probably not working. I think that is a huge barrier. I can only imagine it’s one of the implicit reasons, so they may not talk about it, why Facebook won't let people do it. There are also barriers about confidentiality, security, that kind of thing but I think in my own experience of running companies what people routinely find is that when they decide they’re going to spend a day at home to work, the work they’ve taken home which they know would take them a whole day to do in the office generally gets done at lunchtime. I do think however it is really important that people do have time together and what we know is that one reason to have organisations is because you get a huge benefit of collective intelligence when people come together, swap ideas, challenge each other and I think this idea which some people have had which is well everybody can work from home and we never have to get together, I think it may be cheap but I don't think it’s efficient or productive. 

PL: So they're interesting points certainly and I'm wondering if you think is Christine right about this point, I've heard it often said flexible working often involves more hours than you’re actually paid for? 

CM: I think so. I mean I think that's probably one of the things that we need to tackle and what the Taskforce also focusing on is job design and making sure that when we are offering a flexible role or in some ways reduced hours that it’s actually not just the full-time role repackaged as a part-time role. 

PL: What about the barriers that Margaret was talking about, this perception that workers if they’re not under a manager’s eye they’re not working, I mean there's very little evidence for that is there?` 

KS: I think it is a real challenge for all employers in terms of how we’re dealing with it. We have set some very clear measurements of the impact of flexible working as part of our pilot so that we can try and measure productivity which is challenging and at the end of the pilots the plan is to look at the impact – has it made a difference, have people delivered on time, and to budget, particularly for example at our construction sites. 

PL: Because that's the thing isn’t it, it is about outputs and approaching it from the other end is a difficulty a lot of organisations have because they’re not really grasping that. 

KS: Yes, and for us that's why we’ve got these measures in place because we can then demonstrate the impact and it becomes harder to challenge flexibility if you can deliver the outputs. 

PL: That brings us to buy-in from line managers and overcoming resistance. 

CM: Yes and I think genuinely there will be a resistance because some line managers will think there's a lot of work involved here in terms of scheduling but actually what we need to do is make sure there is senior support so that then line managers feel that they have permission to be flexible with their teams and we’ve got senior role models. We talked about leaving loudly if they’ve got a flexible pattern so that people know that that's part of the culture. And then those line managers that are doing it well become attractors of talent. 

KS: I’d concur with that, in terms of leaving loudly is an ethos that we’re trying to build with our senior managers and it’s getting a lot more buy-in because if it’s okay for a senior manager to leave at a particular time then it’s okay for their team to leave as well. So it really sets a good example to others. 

PL: Yes and that's an interesting point and Margaret Heffernan had something to say about the productivity piece as well. Let’s hear that. 

MH: I think organisations can overcome the barriers to remote working partly by asking people what they think would make them more productive. I think also one of the things we know about productivity is that human productivity really taps out at about 40 hours a week. We’ve known this since 1888 when the first productivity experiments were done. We’ve been doing experiments ever since, the numbers hardly change. So actually there's a limit to the number of really good working hours in a working week and I think once you make it really clear that you’re talking about productivity in terms of output not input then a lot of the resistant to remote working falls away. 

PL: And Kamal, I could see you nodding when she was talking about asking people what makes them more productive, is that something you've done? 

KS: Yes as part of our flexible working pilots we’ve engaged our teams, so we’ve got eight pilots across the business and what we’ve encouraged is informal flexible working because we wanted that freedom of expression and it’s been important for all the teams to get together and decide amongst themselves what they feel would make them more productive and the potential impact on other members of the team and how that could work. So it wasn’t necessarily management saying this is what the solution is. 

PL: That is really interesting tell us a bit more about what sort of solutions they’ve come up with and have they all come up with the same solutions? 

KS: No we’ve had very varied solutions. So for some it’s about working compressed hours, five days into four. For other’s it’s about staggered hours so it gives them flexibility, so for example to come in early, leave early, which means that potentially they can pick up their kids at the back end of the day and the other half picks them up at the beginning of the day. For others it’s about having a Wednesday afternoon off because they want to go and play golf. So what was really important for us was that it’s not designed for a particular group of people it was open to absolutely everybody. 

PL: That is a really interesting way of doing it isn’t it? 

CM: And also quite brave as well. I think it’s great actually asking individuals and empowering them to make that decision themselves and then they take ownership for it. 

PL: And did they struggle? I mean how big are the teams? 

KS: So they vary, some range from 15; some are smaller teams, back office, front office. I think if I'm honest it was a struggle in terms of getting their heads round it particularly from a site perspective because it’s not a way that we’ve necessarily worked, although there has been some informal flexibility to be fair. But I think the fact that everybody’s come together and has come to a joint solution with it has got that buy-in. 

PL: And you did get a sense that it was joint, it wasn’t the most senior people in the room saying, well actually this is what’s going to work for me? 

KS: No absolutely not, it was definitely a consensus in terms of what would work for everybody and how as a business our priority is to deliver a fantastic service to our clients and to get a work/life balance whilst we do it. I think in terms of Margaret’s point on you can't be based at home all the time, so we’ve got a mixed bag. We’ve got some people working at home some days but then we’ve also got team meetings that are set in place so that everybody does come together to share learning. 

PL: A good idea this point that people do need to come together you think? 

CM: I think so. And I think from the case studies that we’ve been looking at building up those relationships initially face to face is really helpful and then that allows you to be more virtual, allows you to be more flexible but you do need to have some kind of element of face to face to build up that kind of relationship. 

PL: And as you've both said it’s about trust isn’t it? I think Dan Kieran had a point to make about flexible working being an expression of trust. 

Dan Kieran: For me flexible working is incredibly important for a company because at its heart is an expression of trust for your workforce and people who are trusted perform better for you and I think it’s one of the things that employers struggle with because they have quite an old fashioned mindset around work where they pay for their employee’s time and therefore they want to be able to see and monitor that they’re getting good value. I had a conversation in the pub with some of the staff actually quite recently and one of them said when they first found out they were like, this guy’s a pushover I can totally take the piss, and they sort of did for the first few weeks but then they were like, actually I really value that I'm allowed to do this and what they’ve realised is they get more work done. 

PL: So that does speak to the point you were making doesn’t it Kamal about the idea that there's trust but there's buy-in and so they kind of get the sense it’s more about the team supporting each other. 

KS: Very much so. 

CM: And two-way flexibility as well so I think the trust it’s not just one-way it has to work both ways so I as an organisation am affording you to work in this flexible way and we want you to be flexible in return when you can be, and building up that type of relationship I think is really important. 

KS: You’re turning it into an adult/adult relationship effectively, there's a give and take in the equation isn’t there? 

CM: Yeah that's right. 

PL: And it kind of flattens out the management structure in a way doesn’t it? 

KS: Very much so. 

PL: Because everyone really has an equal say in how the structure works and making it work in practice because you can't have some of the team members as we heard in the clip, taking the mick, because everyone is co-dependent. 

CM: Yeah they’ll be held accountable won't they really by their team members and they’ll want to make it work I think is another point really. 

KS: There's a real incentive to making it work. Although that said when we’ve run our pilots not everybody wants to work in a flexible way, some people are happy to work the core hours, and that’s fine too. 

PL: So of course demographics are key here, the share of total employment accounted for by people aged over 50 is set to rise, as we know, in fact it’s going up to 35% over the next three years so that means by 2032 a tenth of the workforce could be aged over 65. So what sort of flexible work will these older workers want? Here’s Christine Armstrong. 

CA: I think we have to look at this subject in the context of 100 year life and this idea that people will work frantically in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s for 60 or 70 hours a week in some cases, in professional jobs, is bananas. It’s unsustainable; we see the mental health problems that come with it. We see the breakdowns. We see the people leaving employment and deciding they’re going to hand-print wallpaper somewhere in Scotland. What I would like us to think about is a long-term approach to different phases of our career where you can scale up and scale down according to your needs as an individual, according to your family needs and your caring needs but with an underlying focus on being more productive. 

PL: It’s interesting isn’t it this whole idea about age and we hear a lot about millennials and what they want in terms of flex and I think that's been well discussed hasn’t it but this thought about older workers perhaps with caring responsibilities, perhaps just wanting phased retirement, perhaps just needing to work because they can't afford to retire, that's a whole chunk of the workforce that are really going to be focused on flex aren’t they? 

CM: Yes definitely. And research that we’ve done before at the CIPD shows that organisations aren’t offering enough flexibility for that kind of cohort and we’re talking about flexibility across the board but a lot of older workers will want phased retirement. They might want to retire and then return. So I think it’s an area that organisations really need to focus on going forward. 

PL: We hear a lot about the four-day week, obviously other countries have adopted it in a big way; it’s much discussed over here, well here’s Dan giving us his thoughts on it. 

DK: I'm really excited by the four-day week. Just to give you an example the people I hire they’re the best in their field at what they do. They’re hard to get. For people like that in five, ten years’ time the way you'll get them is by offering them four days a week not five. Paying for five but getting them four days a week because they’ll do more in four days than five.

PL: And obviously we’ve been talking about a whole variety of forms of flex and it comes in many shapes and sizes but four-day week do you see that becoming more of a norm? It’s becoming much more popular in countries like Japan isn’t it? I think it’s quite widespread in Holland, in Germany, is it just a lazy way of thinking about flex or is it the way forward? 

KS: I think it’s the way forward. We’ve had a lot of interest in terms of a four-day week, a compressed week and the fact that so many people are interested in it is giving us a very clear signal. A lot of our employees want to have a longer weekend and therefore if people have those extra three days instead of two days they’re then more committed to the role and we get more out of them from a business perspective, better engagement, better messages about the business to the wider world as well. So I think it will drive improvement in terms of performance and productivity. 

PL: Yet you don’t see a loss there on the business front? 

KS: I don't think so. Data so far suggests that it’s a win. 

PL: I mean thinking about, we’ve alluded to recruitment, we’ve talked about retention, the labour market is tight, we’re recording this ahead of Brexit but the Office of Budget Responsibility seems pretty certain we’re going to look at a tight labour market regardless of how that plays out is flexibility going to be a key issue in terms of recruiting going forward? 

KS: Definitely without a shadow of a doubt. It’s the USP that sets different companies apart from others. It’s an exciting time for our industry, if we can offer flexibility we’ll be able to attract the best candidates. So for example as part of our pilots what we've said to the pilot teams is if we’ve got any recruitment within those teams the default position is the role will be advertised as flexible. 

PL: Needless to say you can find a huge amount of information and research about flexible working on the CIPD website, including that Megatrends report that we talked about earlier. 

Join us again next month. Thanks for listening.

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