Is flexible working going backwards?

With more requests for advice from people having flexible working turned down or changed, it’s important to keep making the case for why, where possible, people need more choice over where and how they work.

Woman working from home


Gill* returned from maternity leave in November and asked to work compressed hours and two days a week from home to accommodate childcare drop off/pick up. This was approved on a trial basis by her then manager and HR. She worked fully remotely during the pandemic with no problems. Fast forward to her return to work and the end of her trial and the business has ordered every employee back into the office full time, including her. Her flexible working has been declined on the basis that everyone else has to be in the office five days a week due to unspecified business quality and performance issues.  Her employer knows she will have to leave and has already started recruiting. She wrote to asking what her rights are. is getting more and more requests for help along these lines as flexible working is turned down or rescinded and employers row back on remote and hybrid working. We’re not the only ones. Pregnant Then Screwed says it is getting lots of similar calls to its helpline. LinkedIn announced last week that the share of job ads for entirely remote positions that it posts fell for the eighth consecutive month in December. A recent survey by the Chartered Management Institute shows 14% of hybrid working organisations plan to increase expected working in the office days in 2023, although the majority – 65% – either planned to stick to their current plans or decrease days in the office.

At the same time the cost of living crisis is meaning many employees want to come back to the office, if only to benefit from the heating. A survey by CV Library this week found just over 20 per cent of the 1,700 people they surveyed reported that the recent freezing weather had made them change their working patterns and go into the office, rather than working from home – 41 per cent to save on heating bills and nearly 18% to save on their electricity bill. Social isolation in the cold weather was another key factor.

Is flexible working going backwards or is this just an adjustment period after forced acceleration during Covid? Of course, flexible working comes in many guises and Covid was not an all-round positive for part-time working, for instance, although part-time furlough has beneficial implications if we can capitalise on them.

When it comes to remote working, which many can’t do due to the nature of their jobs despite ongoing technological advances meaning that number is diminishing every day – there are many different reasons why someone wants or doesn’t want to work in an office. A study out this week from the National Bureau of Economic Research, for instance, finds that remote work saves UK commuters 73 minutes a day, with workers devoting on average 40% of their saved time toward primary and secondary jobs.

What’s important is having the choice because Covid has shown that desk-based workers can still get their jobs done perfectly well if they work remotely. The last few weeks have demonstrated that the world of work is still extremely turbulent.  Sickness is everywhere – a sign that the Covid impact on our health remains an issue. The various strikes are also having an effect – with the teachers strike looming in England.

Being flexible and adaptable to external circumstances makes absolute business sense – indeed in the last years businesses’ ability to survive has relied on them being able to adapt. If they can be flexible in the face of external circumstances, they can surely also be flexible in the face of internal pressures – the pressures facing their employees – particularly in a tight labour market with an ageing population.

We are all much more aware now that there are employers who are more adaptable than others. There is choice, particularly for those in in-demand jobs, but that needs to extend much further across the whole workplace. Flexibility needs to be nurtured and encouraged continuously or we will slip backwards, but the Government often seems to be speaking with a forked tongue on this issue. One minute they are praising flexible working as the answer to all workplace issues [for instance, instead of implementing menopause discrimination legislation] and the next a government minister or supporter is decrying working from home as being unproductive [with no evidence to back this up and amplified by certain sections of the media]. Consistency would not only be helpful, but is vital if we are to have an economy that is inclusive of all those who can and want to work.

*Not her real name

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