Are your flexible working policies fair?

Written by: Natasha Hilton-Keane is director of recruitment at Osborne Thomas
Published on: 7 Sep 2023

The ongoing and raging debate regarding flexible working reached a bit of a hiatus in August with chief executives of big organisations such as Amazon, Meta and Zoom all insisting they want their employees in the office two/three days per week; some even issuing threats if their employees don’t comply.

They are not alone; we know local authority chief executives, members and leadership teams – in the majority – want the same thing. And we know there is sense in this view. Local authorities are significant employers who, due to their central office locations, contribute enormously to local economies – shops, restaurants, leisure facilities, and so on. Others argue those employees who can work flexibly versus those who can’t because they are frontline workers isn’t fair; those in IT and HR who work purely remotely getting a particularly negative rap here. Further views include working purely in isolation as having a negative effect on our wellbeing, and that the knock of effect is we have forgotten how to interact and engage with others.

But what do our employees want? Recently published figures by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development report that 12% of the UK’s workforce (4 million people) changed their job in the last year due to lack of flexible working. And 71% of the working population cite flexible working as being very important to them – it enables them to balance their lives more easily in what is becoming a far more demanding and fast moving world. For us as executive recruiters, the first question we are asked by prospective candidates is what is the flexible working policy?

Added to all of the above is the equally ongoing and raging debate regarding productivity and whether home working enhances productivity levels or reduces them. We know what chief executives, members and leadership teams might say and we know what workforces might say.

So, what do we do with this growing divide between employers and employees in what is an already challenging period when it comes to retaining and recruiting your best talent? And is there a way to please both sides?

A positive of what we have been through over the past few years is that we had time to experiment and test the waters. In sheer, and understandable, panic we started by shutting ourselves away behind firmly bolted doors. As regulations slowly softened, and after close-on a full year, some of us found ourselves cautiously heading back into the office maybe one day per week. For some that became two days, others three days; the determination of which exactly being down to the jobs we did, and, more likely (let’s be honest), our personal preference. Many have dug their heels in when it comes to set days to be present in the office, saying: ‘We are very comfortable at home thank you’.

As we begin our journey towards the end of 2023, is now a good time to be reflecting on our learnings and reviewing what works for ‘all’ of us (with a nod to ‘fairness’)? It is probably time for some of us – both organisations and  the workforce) to take a bit of a clearer call on our flexible working practices and what they really look like.

Some organisations have adopted hybrid as the balance to being fair – for example some days in the office, others at home. It supports organisational goals, it gives employees balance, and our local economies are positively embraced.

Of course, this model needs consideration and creativity for those frontline workers who by the very nature of the work they do are frontline. What can we do to make them feel better about fairness? We can’t assume that we know – so why not ask them?

Some organisations have done this and they have been surprised by some of the responses; regular social gatherings, better street lighting, more ‘time out’ breaks, just examples. It’s not always about the money, it’s about time with each other, with family, and so on. These can easily be incorporated into working practices and they create a feeling of being listened to, understood, responded to, and considered. Any ‘unfairness’ goes away and is replaced by more positive actions and outcomes.

Reviewing working policies is now more important than ever. The market is moving at an extreme rate, changes are becoming the ‘norm’ and we need to play catch up quickly to ensure the best talent is retained and attracted  

Natasha Hilton-Keane is director of recruitment at Osborne Thomas