A young woman in a wheelchair working on a laptop in a home environment

Flexibility, including the expansion of remote and hybrid working patterns, has become the defining feature of the modern work landscape. Flexible working can support employees to work well, balancing work and personal lives and easing stressors that drive absence. Flexibility enables employers to increase workforce diversity, creating opportunities for those who may find it challenging to engage in standard work routines.

The adoption of remote and hybrid work expands the geographical labour pool available to employers. Realising the benefits of flexibility has become ever more central to achieving positive employment outcomes as high workloads, job insecurity, and wider socio-economic factors including the cost-of-living crisis create multiple pressure points for workers.

Realising the benefits of flexibility has become ever more central to achieving a positive employment outcome.

Dr Daniel Wheatley

The value of flexibility has long been recognised in the policy sphere, with rights for requesting flexible working implemented in the UK from 2003, and the recent expansion of flexible working policy by the UK Government to offer day one rights for requesting flexible working from 1 April 2024 keeping up the momentum. Incidences of flexible working have expanded alongside these policy developments.

Recent estimates from the Annual Population Survey show that around two-in-five working adults now report performing some work at home, and similar proportions are recorded for flexible working hours. Other estimates put the proportions working a hybrid home-workplace routine at up to 60%.

Many unaware of flexible working arrangements

However, gaps remain both in understanding and application of flexibility in work. The CIPD’s Working Lives Survey finds that one-in-ten workers report not knowing whether certain flexible working arrangements are available to them. Recent research I published with colleagues at the University of Birmingham in the journal Work, Employment and Society identifies that levels of awareness and perceived availability and autonomy over decisions to work flexibly often vary considerably at local level, in part reflecting the influence of local line management.

Our research identifies the necessary steps to realise the benefits of flexible working, including for workplace wellbeing, for both employer and employee. We identify the presence of a ‘flexibility ripple effect’ in which individual-level flexibility has unintended, and in some cases negative, ripple effects at team, function and wider organization level.

Our findings highlight the need to integrate the wider context in which employees work into development of flexible working policies to avoid any negative ripple effects. For example, the co-ordination of physical presence to provide support to those who must be onsite. When identifying solutions, use of core hours or onsite days in hybrid home-workplace models should be approached carefully.

Mandated presence on fixed days represents a form of ‘fixed flexibility’ delivering lesser flexibility to the individual and may not create efficiencies at team/function level, e.g., where employees work across teams, all members of one team being allocated the same mandated onsite days will create gaps in availability.

Line Management essential

We evidence the essential role of line management in co-ordinating activities and managing local level flexibility. To be truly effective requires line managers to have a key, co-ordinating role to ensure flexible working fulfils the needs of the individual, while enabling fit with the needs of the team and wider organization. This requires a move away from one-size-fits-all strategies towards a tailored approach.

Flexible working has the potential to deliver benefits all round, but this requires buy-in from line managers and leaders. As flexibility is in ever higher demand from employees, it is essential that organisations are well positioned to accommodate flexibility in ways that provide benefits to the employee while recognising the impacts on stakeholders across the organisation. This requires employers to embrace flexibility through:

  1. Increasing awareness of flexible working policies and engaging in active promotion of the benefits of their use.
  2. Developing training programmes and toolkits for line managers and leaders to increase organisational capabilities and enable effective co-ordination of flexible working to ensure it fulfils the needs of the individual, while enabling fit with the needs of the team and wider organisation.
  3. Creating guidance on how to move away from one-size-fits-all policies and practices towards a tailored approach offering employees choice, agency and voice in decision-making, while accommodating different stakeholder needs.
  4. Promoting the adoption of ‘inclusive flexibility’, centring on how to increase workforce diversity and inclusivity through the creation of a more flexible workplace.
  5. Ensuring that design of flexible working practices works for both the employer and employee, including considering alternatives to the use of core hours or onsite days in hybrid working, and avoiding rigid ‘fixed flexibility’ models.

Flexible working is here to stay. A lack of flexibility is no longer an option for organisations across many sectors. As such, realising the benefits of flexibility is essential. Our research supports this need, providing guidance on how to realise benefits and minimise potential risks present in the adoption of flexible working including the critical role of good line management in a flexible future of work.

Daniel Wheatley
Department of Management, Reader in Business and Labour Economics, Birmingham Business School