The flexibility trap

Flexible working is now the norm… isn’t it? Still working our way through a pandemic, home working, remote working, and changes to shifts and hours are all accepted parts (essential parts!) of our new normal.

After all, there are plenty of global surveys, experts and pundits telling us that we’ll never return to more rigid working practices; that the future is flexible. The first annual Microsoft 2021 Work Trend Index Report notes that 73% of employees want remote and other flexible options to continue. In what seems an argument for hybrid working, the same report found that 67% of people want more face to face contact with their teams. And in many sectors, remaining flexible seems very possible – for example, McKinsey & Company looked at the IT and telecoms sector and found that 58% of time is spent on activities that can be carried out remotely with no loss in productivity.

However, if those who can (and want to) work flexibly are going to continue to do so, managers and HR departments need to ensure they don’t slip back into pre-pandemic thinking. In other words, to survive the pandemic businesses have torn down the barriers to flexible working; it’s important not to re-impose them just because things are feeling a little more ‘normal’…

A timely reminder from Acas

Acas’ own survey found that the UK workforce has little desire to return to non-remote working as the norm – 55%  expect an increase in staff working from home or remotely for part of the working week, and 49% for the whole week. Yet an Acas analysis of calls to its national helpline show that the ‘traditional’ barriers to flexible working arrangements are still in place:

  • “It’s a right to work flexibly” – No, no it isn’t. Employees have the right to request flexible working. And employers have the obligation to consider that request seriously (or, if you prefer, the right to turn a request down on business grounds). The general principle is that requests should be granted wherever possible but there is no obligation on an employer to suffer a worse business situation as a result. The perception of it as a ‘right to work flexibly’ can employers to adopt a ‘best not to mention it in the first place’ approach, discouraging them from making the workforce aware of flexible working as an option.
  • “It’s really only for parents or carers” – More and more people are aware that everyone has the right to request flexible working arrangements of their employer. However, even though that right has been universal since 2014 a large number of employees (and managers) still view it as relevant only to people with parenting or other caring responsibilities. This can present a barrier to non-carers and especially men, given lingering attitudes about who is responsible for parenting.
  • “I don’t know how to apply” – Many employees are unaware that by applying for flexible working they are making a formal statutory request, with a formal procedure that must then be followed. Couple this with concern about the impact of flexible working arrangements on an employee’s contract of employment and the uncertainty and lack of knowledge act as barriers to applications.

The upshot, for Acas, is that all involved will benefit from greater understanding of the fact that the right to request is available to all, and what is involved in making a flexible working request. In other words, transparency and awareness, ensuring all workers are properly informed. And in terms of myth-busting communications, straightforward application procedures, and transparent decision-making, it’s fair to say that HR departments are expected to take the lead.

Flexible working (including hybrid working arrangements) can contribute towards better recruitment and retention, not to mention boosting productivity by creating a better work-life balance for employees that need it.

All of which is very relevant right now, as we’re encouraged to ‘get back to work’ (which includes employers and businesses working out what “getting back” means or looks like for them). However, these barriers aren’t new (?) and they won’t evaporate once the pandemic is over. In fact, if we see the post-pandemic period as ‘getting back to normal’ the risk is that these barriers will be re-established, as firmly as ever.


If you need support with flexible or remote working practices, check out our available training programmes  (all of which can be tailored to your needs, and run in-person or online; or give us a call on 01582 463462 – we’re here to help.

Categories: HR

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