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The ‘next’ world of work: flexibility for all?

20th July 2021

by Amity Watts.

One of the positive changes to have emerged from 2020 and the mass move to working from home, is a fresh look at what makes work ‘work’ from the point of view of employees and business owners. In the UK we have stuck to a 5-day working week since the 1920’s when various American firms – inspired by the Henry Ford Motor Company – implemented the practice for manufacturing and office staff. This was a century ago however, and many things have changed for UK employees. Recently there has been much written about the ‘next’ world of work and how our working weeks could look post-Covid, and as recruiters it’s a topic we’re discussing with clients and candidates every day. Here’s a look at the landscape and how we are all affected.

The roles we advertise are mostly head office or site-based roles within Sales, Marketing, Operations, Buying & Procurement, Category Management, Supply Chain and Logistics where working from home is manageable, so this is the profile we are discussing today. Following the mandate to work from home ‘where possible’ in March 2020, it is estimated up to 8 million people across the UK were performing some sort of home working. Now many of us are heading back to the office is a contradiction between employees’ and employers’ attitudes becoming apparent? Despite a desire of many employees to remain at home, less than 5% of the vacancies we advertise for our clients are offered as permanently and fully home based. Research found that nine in ten people wanted more flexibility and/or reduced hours in their next job, yet in 2020 only 8% of job vacancies in the UK were offering part-time options. For professional roles paying a salary over £60,000, only one in 33 were advertised as part-time.

Despite this perceived reluctance from some employers to change their time requirements at the beginning of the recruitment process (rather than flexing around a preferred candidate), there is plenty of evidence from around the world that permanent changes to the working week are on their way. There has been the success story in Iceland following a 4-yr trial where 2,500 participants were paid the same to reduce their weekly hours by 5 or 6 hours. Unilever in New Zealand are leading the way too with their 81 employees across Sales, Marketing and Distribution becoming eligible to slash their hours by 20% without hurting their pay. Their Managing Director says “Essentially, this is about a holistic understanding of how work and life fit together, and improving mental and physical wellbeing.”

Interestingly, in a 1926 magazine interview, Henry Ford said: “Leisure is an indispensable ingredient in a growing consumer market because working people need to have enough free time to find uses for consumer products, including automobiles.” This is echoed by New Zealand’s Prime Minister who has highlighted the potential benefits for domestic tourism of a shorter working week, ie. more leisure time for workers means more time to enjoy spending their wage and therefore stimulating the economy. So flexibility was originally conceived for its wider economic benefits, whereas contemporary thinking puts the benefit on the employee.

Flexibility may be here to stay, but for some sections of the workforce it’s been there all along. Just under 50% of all working parents work flexibly in the UK already. This has historically been heavily gendered with women more likely to flex work around children but this is changing and more fathers are now applying for flexible hours. It’s clear that parents have been given the ability to flex for years, but what about everyone else? The government guidelines on working from home state “All employees have the legal right to request flexible working – not just parents and carers”, but do we all know that? Are employers making this clear that the flexibility is available for all? There are many benefits to working part of the week away from the office; improved mental health, reduction in commuting time, saving money, generally a better balance between work and life, time to pursue other interests, time away from the laptop screen. Flexibility and its benefits should surely be afforded to everyone for their own personal reasons, not just parents. It’s discriminatory to allow parents to flex their work around their commitments when parenthood is a choice that not everyone takes.

We are seeing this thinking filter through from our candidates too. Our Consultants now find it is the number one priority for many candidates, even above salary. We are now hearing candidates say they value their personal time and flexibility more than an extra £2/3k of salary. We have even seen candidates withdraw from a process because the client was fixed on 5 days in the office. This is becoming an issue for clients who don’t offer flexibility and this can appear to reflect poorly on their business and working culture in the market. It doesn’t just affect head office roles either; site-based personnel also look for more flexibility in their start and finish times. This has been happening for many years in a quiet, case-by-case fashion but recent events have given employees a platform to push for change as a group.

As recruiters, we have a duty to pass this feedback on to our clients and advise when a policy is affecting their employer brand. Both parties need to know the situation and expectations from the beginning of the process. Whilst we are expecting a staggered ‘return’ to the office from now on, it’s clear that things have changed for us all over the last 16 months and flexibility is required on both sides while we all adapt to what work looks like post-pandemic. As one of my favourite quotes (attributed to author Robert Ludlam) goes; “Blessed are the flexible, for they will not allow themselves to be bent out of shape!”

Photo credit: Unsplash.com

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