The future of flexible working

What does the future hold for flexible working? Andy Lake of Flexibility.co.uk looks forward to a changing work landscape.

Flexible working has perhaps never been as relevant as it is at the moment, with the country struggling to emerge from recession.  While there are many personal benefits to flexible working, essentially it’s about doing more with less – that’s at the heart of why it’s good for businesses.

It’s about doing what you do more effectively, and with the use of fewer resources.  That can mean reducing the amount of office space, and creating more intensively used working environments. It’s about reducing travel, absenteeism and employee turnover, while increasing productivity by having people working in the most effective places and at the most effective times.

Some people still see flexible working as an expense, even a luxury in difficult times.  And to be fair, many organisations don’t make the most of the opportunities for efficiency.  This is because they adopt flexible working in an ad hoc or reactive way.  Perhaps they are thinking about property savings but not employee benefits.  Or about recruitment but not property or travel impacts.

The key to success is to have an integrated strategy that covers all the aspects – HR, IT, property and facilities.  You can’t build a strategy based on reacting to the latest employee request.  How to bring it all together is the theme of our conference in Westminster on February 24th – Total Smart Working: Bringing together the benefits of flexible working.

General election
Politically, 2010 is the year when flexible working moves to centre stage. We have an election coming up, with all the main parties committed to championing flexibility.  As someone who has been reporting on this field for some 16 years now, it is astonishing how the landscape has changed since the 1990s.  Back then the trade unions and political left were hostile to many aspects of flexibility: part-time work and homeworking, for example, did not provide ‘real jobs’, while contract work was seen as plain exploitative.  Meanwhile, the employers’ organisations and the political right were also suspicious, fearing over-regulation, government interference and excessive costs imposed on industry.

While some of those fears remain in the background, a remarkable consensus has emerged over the past decade, with unions, employers organisations, government, opposition parties all coming to recognise the benefits of greater flexibility. 

The Government has brought in a whole range of ‘family-friendly’ policies, including the ‘right to request’ flexible work for people with caring responsibilities. Now kites are being flown about extending a right to request to jobseekers, who are not currently helped by the present legislation.

On the opposition side, there has been a commitment to flexible working in the context of work-life balance – so there should be no reversal of policy should they get in.  There is also a greater recognition of the value of home-based enterprise, and recent statements show a willingness to encourage domestic entrepreneurship as a key ingredient of building an innovative low carbon economy.

These are exciting areas of flexible working.  It is not widely known that two thirds of homeworkers are self-employed.  41% of businesses are home-based, and around 60% of start-ups begin life in the home. 

The future
So what will we see in the rest of 2010 and beyond? Without doubt, we will see further redundancies, not least in the public sector.  Flexible work will play a key role in three key ways in the recovery.

First, organisations will be more readily looking to employ people on a part-time basis and on fixed-term contracts rather than jumping feet-first back into recruiting permanent full-timers.  They will also make increasing use of freelancers.

Secondly, there will be a contraction of the public sector, in particular the government sector (as opposed to health services, etc), whichever party takes power.  The only debate is about the extent of slimming down.  Many of those who would be working in the public sector are going to be setting up businesses, and they will be mostly based at home. Many of those taking early retirement have already set up their business, with their lump sum providing part of their working capital.

Thirdly, there will be a growth in the number of live/work homes built (i.e. designed as both homes and workplaces), and the number of local ‘work hubs’ that provide facilities for home-based and mobile workers.  This sector has grown rapidly over the past few years, and is now supported by Government policy at national and regional levels.

There are some barriers, though, to this, and areas where organisations can do with some additional guidance and support.  While more and more managers are convinced of the potential benefits of flexible working, it’s harder to know how to put it into practice, how to move flexible work from theory to practice.

And many organisations I’ve been involved with have an initiative that’s started in one area, but are unable to get it adopted across the whole organisation.  But perhaps the biggest barrier is in terms of organisational culture.  Unless the momentum is kept up in changing attitudes and behaviours, work tends to drift back to the old traditional ways by default.

So the road to flexible working has challenges, and is not always a smooth one.  But all the signs are there that change is going to come. 

Andy Lake is Editor of Flexibility.co.uk, the online journal of flexible work which he has edited since 1994.  He has been involved in many implementations of flexible work, specialising in building the evidence base for change and developing organisational policies for smarter working.  Andy has also participated in numerous research projects funded by the UK Government and the European Commission, specialising in particular in the impacts of new ways of working on business location, land use and transport.  Andy is also coordinator of the Smart Work Network, a network of around 140 larger companies and public sector organisations that collaborate in developing their flexible working programmes.

Andy recently co-edited the Smith Institute think-tank report, Can Homeworking Save the Planet? which looks at the role new ways of working can play in developing low carbon communities and how public policy should change to make the most of the benefits. Flexibility.co.uk is running a series of events in 2010 aimed at helping companies move forward with flexible working.  The first is on February 24th in Westminster, which will be addressed by Lord Young, the Minister for Employment Relations. Further details are on the conference website at www.totalsmartworking.com.  
 
 

 





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