The future is flex: Flexible work is here to stay, companies and policy need to adapt

Flexible and hybrid working – where employees may be afforded more control of where, when and how to work – appears to be here to stay. The pandemic has made us question the way we design, think about and practice work and we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reset the way we work for good.

However our own research and others’ suggests that there is significant pushback, access is unequal and positive results are uneven. Employees from higher paying jobs are more able to work from home. Less than half the population (47%) worked remotely during the peak of restrictions in April 2020. There are also geographic inequalities, 57.2% of people in London conducted part of their work from home during the lockdown, compared with just 35.3% of people in the West Midlands. In this context, it is inappropriate for remote working to dominate discussions of the future of work, or fairness in flexibility.

Companies and policymakers are starting to realise there is a need to adapt to new patterns of working – the ILO and WHO have recently published a technical brief asserting that crucial changes are needed both from policymakers and organisations to enhance the wellbeing, health and safety at work. The report highlights the connection between flexible working and extension to other new protections as the world of work transforms, such as the right to disconnect.

And the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has recently concluded a consultation ‘Making flexible working the default’, which proposes the right to request flexible working from day one of employment. This is a light touch approach but invites deliberation on turning the ‘right to request’ into a ‘right to have’, which would remove an employer’s ability to turn down a request for flexible working.

This APPG on the Future of Work event explored some of the key questions when it comes to flexible working, including:

  • Is flexible and/or hybrid working the 'future of work'? 
  • What is the business case for flexible and/or hybrid working? What is the health/wellbeing case? 
  • What does ‘good’ flexible working look like?
  • How can we ensure that more people benefit from good flexible working? 
  • What wider social and economic implications does access to flexible and/or hybrid working have? 
  • What new infrastructures do we need to support better and wider access to flexible working e.g. additional childcare support, working spaces nearer home etc?
  • How can we mitigate current risks associated with flexible working e.g. how can we ensure that those working flexibly are able to progress their careers/are not at a disadvantage of fewer development opportunities?

Chair: David Davis MP


  • Emma Stewart, Development Director, Timewise
  • Abigail Marks, Professor of the Future of Work, Newcastle University Business School
  • Cheney Hamilton, Founder and CEO, Find Your Flex
  • Kate Bravery, Senior Partner, Advisory and Insight Leader at Mercer
  • Anna Thomas, Director, Institute for the Future of Work

Watch back an edited recording of the session:

Edited transcript

David Davis: We start with Emma Stewart, who is the Co-Founder and Development Director of Timewise, a flexible working consultancy. As Development Director, Emma works with businesses, thought leaders, policymakers, and social reformers to test and scale innovative solutions that deliver successful and sustainable forms of work. Prior to co-founding Timewise, and Women Like Us, Emma worked in a range of development roles across the private, civic society and social enterprise sectors and within documentary television.

Emma Stewart: I was asked to reflect on the extent to which flexible working is or isn't improving the way we work, and how fundamentally we can we create sustainable, inclusive, flexible working going forward, whilst learning some of the lessons from the last couple of years.

By way of introduction, Timewise is a social business, we have been around for about 15 years, which looks at flexible working, and pandemic-induced hybrid working. We work to create a better functioning labour market. Probably the most relevant thing we do in this context is work with businesses and provide consultancy services to firms who, for lots of different reasons, want to get better at flexible work.

Our clients range from Google, to Tesco, to the Government of Jersey, and they work with us because, for them, flexible working means being able to attract and retain great and diverse talent, which means being able to ensure those people are able to do their best work in their best way, subject to whether it's where they work, when they work, or how much they work. And they want to make sure that they are able to provide a healthy workplace so they can balance work with whatever else is happening in their lives.

I thought I would start the discussion with a couple of reflections on what we think good looks like in the context of flexibility, and in the context of having worked with lots of businesses, and individuals.

First thing, for our employers, we think it's about how you design work in a way that maximises business performance, but that also enables people to have some input, autonomy and control over how much, when and where they work. So the ideal scenario is that sweet spot between what works for business and what works for individuals. You could argue that's very simple to achieve but actually, it's not.

Secondly, we think good flexible work is about making sure that flexibility is available through the employee lifecycle. So from day one in a job, through to being able to negotiate flexibility as life changes, through to being able to progress and fundamentally take that flexibility with you. We need flexibility to be able to everybody, irrespective of job role, and irrespective of the sector that you are in, which is my third point that we think good flexible work needs to be fair and consistent for all.

We also need a functioning labour market system that enables people who need flexibility to be able to make sure that they’re not compromised on their skills. We know that in the UK, people with the skills and experience, in particular older workers and women, are leaving the labour market. Therefore what we need is structural changes to how work is done to be able to help them to re-enter the labour market and to be able to stay there and progress in it.

So we need structural systems change, we need management training and capabilities and we need good leadership.

DD: Our next speaker is incredibly well qualified, Professor Abigail Marks is Professor of the Future of Work at Newcastle University Business School. And she's currently the Principal Investigator for a large ESRC-funded project looking at homeworking responses to COVID-19. Over the past year, Abigail has provided evidence to the House of Lords and Senedd Cymru, the Welsh Senate, on homeworking. Abigail’s research interests are concerned with the location of work and the construction of organisational, occupational and class identity. And her recent research has evolved to develop a focus on data science, wellbeing at work, and in unemployment, and particularly the experience of work and benefits assessment for people with mental health conditions.

Abigail Marks: What I'm going to talk about is broadly findings about flexible models, including working from home, based on the ESRC research project. The insights I have, and any advice I have is based on hybrid working and flexible home working.

What we found were two key things: work intensification and work extensification, both of which happened during the pandemic, and have been going on post pandemic. There's been an increase in the rate of physical or mental inputs to work tasks – work intensification – and also the extension of the working day well beyond eight hours for many people that are homeworking.

And one of the biggest factors that determined how successful homeworking was, was in terms of adaptations to new technology, and we have found there was some pretty poor support. We've got people sitting in the garage working on their ironing boards. That improved as time went on, but in terms of longer-term learning and basic health and safety and office equipment, employers need to start taking responsibility.

There's also things that we didn’t think about in the pandemic but that have become regular practice, for example using one's own mobile phone or home broadband. Both in terms of privacy and intrusion, these things need to be thought about.

But what the pandemic did do, thank goodness, was finally prompt the technological scaffolding and social awareness that’s actually necessary for a meaningful proportion of the workforce to accomplish their work flexibly, and often in a more productive manner than they could in the office.

We think there are eight, inter-related issues that need to be taken into consideration in terms of any hybrid working models:

  1. Office space: this needs to be reconfigured to be more conducive to collaborative work and social interaction. Organisations also need to ensure homeworking spaces are safe and conducive to performance.
  2. Working rhythms: designing hybrid ratios is one of the most challenging aspects in moving to a permanent hybrid model – reconciling clear organisational messaging about office expectations, with the needs of a diverse workforce. There needs to be increased experimentation with hybrid ratios, although we think there should be less about numerical ambition and more about finding a balance that’s successful for both employees and employers.
  3. Information technology: this goes to the ‘right to disconnect’. Employees feel like because there are technologies in their house, their household is often no longer a place of pleasure, and they need to be online all the time. We've got to be really careful, and care about the people being affected by this technology.
  4. Fairness and inclusion: there needs to be parity of opportunity for people that are mostly or entirely home-based, and those who are more regularly in the office. There need to be practical steps made to ensure every meeting is a hybrid meeting with a video dial-in opportunity, led by a chair that doesn't necessarily need to be in the office and who's skilled in ensuring that everybody contributes. It's really challenging, and it’s something we’re all going to have to learn to work with.
  5. Employee involvement: taking into account their needs alongside the needs of the organisation.
  6. Line-manager capability: line-managers play a pivotal role in new corporate strategies for hybrid and flexible working. It is a different set of skills that they may need for managing hybrid teams than they did previously, so they need to be thought about. We also really need to think about younger, and early careers staff, because they need to benefit from in-person contact,  network building and experiential learning. So that's another thing that’s a really hard balancing act to make.
  7. Communication from leaders: this has been essential through the pandemic, and it will be essential into any new working practices – checking regularly with employees through pulse surveys etc.
  8. Gender equality: women spent six hours more than men a week on unpaid childcare, and this has increased to 7.7 hours after lockdown. From our own research, we found increasing inequalities, which has consequences for income status, professional accomplishments and achievements outside the home. Since the pandemic, women in the UK have been four and a half times more likely to leave their job than their male colleagues due to overburden, for example. In academia, men have been able to publish more papers on average  than they did prior to the pandemic, while women’s research outputs have taken a massive hit, and therefore there is a real threat to advancement. Organisations and governments are limited in terms of legislating home lives, and how couples share chores and childcare etc, but organisations can avoid rewarding overwork, and people working over time, through the right to disconnect, and discouraging intensification and extensification.

DD: Our next speaker is Cheney Hamilton. Cheney is Founder and CEO of the Find Your Flex network, which works closely with businesses to help them implement flexible working policies to address gender pay gaps and enable equality and access to the workplace for everyone. Cheney advocates on the need for careers with #FlexAppeal, and encourages true flexibility, not just non standardised work hours.

Cheney also brings together industry leading HR specialists to deliver focused ‘power’ sessions for her clients and their teams, covering topics such as Embedding Flexible Working, Establishing Positive Behaviours – Values – Cultures, Reducing Gender Pay Gap, Work Life Balance Discovery & Output working.

Cheney Hamilton: I've been asked today to talk specifically about outcome-based working, and if that’s the Ground Zero model for flexible working. I agree it is, and not only for flexible workers, but also for organisations too. I’m happy to share some of my research from the last year on that.

We launched the business back in 2017, and we've been advocating for increased flexibility ever since then. We’ve grown our network over the past five years.

We’ve spent a lot of time researching our audiences because the narrative often falls to parents or to mum. What our research shows is that between September 2020 and August 2021, 58% of our audience had no children, or they had children aged 17 or over. This paints a completely different picture as to the narrative that tends to be painted by the media in terms of who is seeking flexible working. We also reached gender parity in October 2020. That now runs at about a 40% male audience.

One of the most interesting things about the impact of COVID has been that, pre-COVID, 18-24 year olds made up about 3% of our audience. That's now at 20%. So when we look at Gen Z and younger millennials, the impact of the cost of living, or the fact they’re never likely to get on the housing market means they’re looking to spend their money in different ways to how we might traditionally think. We've also seen our audience in the 45+ category increase to 17%. So again, people looking to maybe wind down their working careers a bit earlier, looking for different ways to find that flexibility and to have more work-life balance.

We also looked into the diversity of our audience, and found that 43% of our audience is from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background, and 1 in 7 of our audience is from the LGBTQ community. 1 in 10 has a disability, and 95% of those have a hidden disability. This paints a picture that people are looking at flexible-working businesses as a benchmark for inclusivity. Flexible working isn’t a tickbox, because if it's in your job ad, and you're not delivering it, people will leave, your attrition goes through the roof or they won’t get past the interview stage.

We then put our call out further, not just on our platform itself, but right across the social media landscape: LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and we found that when we asked the question ‘what type of flexible working are you seeking?’ 65% of our network wanted outcome-based working, they did not want time or location-based flexibility.  When you add that to the volume of women who fell out of PAYE roles, and the amount of contractors, freelancers that we see now increasing back up again towards 5 million at the last count that came out earlier this year, we're seeing a really decisive move away from time and location-based flexibility.

People are leaving PAYE roles because they only offer benefits like 4-day week or high wage or ways that aren’t really truly flexible. The only true way to get flexibility is through outcome, and freelance and contract work provides outcome-based working – where it is possible to deliver a business need, in the time that’s agreed to by both parties. For example, if the task takes one day a week to deliver, brilliant, if it means they work five days a week, but from 2am to 6am, and that's how they want to work then that’s ok.

So that's the case of the people, we then looked at what the case is for businesses. And two things for us that COVID really highlighted was one: Government is not going to be able to bail us out again. And two, is that UK business models are too fixed, and we really needed to look at how we could help organisations become more agile, or to find some flexibility organisationally, rather than sticking to old, fixed models where there are overheads. We were introduced to Mutable, which is an organisational structure that basically allows businesses to remain in the process of reinvention, versus short-term thinking or knee jerk digital transformation programmes.

That leads us down the route to automation – McKinsey put out a report recently around the rise of decentralised and autonomous organisations, which are very much automation driven. And the problem with automation is that it's not looking at the people. With work becoming automated, and more people falling out of work, there’s more pressure on the benefit system, and there’s not the input from the Department of Education or from Government to help reskill and retrain people into more sustainable careers. And I do think that every single job that is highlighted on job boards now, shouldn’t just be listed as an outcome-based opportunity, but also whether or not it’s sustainable and is it actually going to be here in the next two, three, four years time?

DD: Our last speaker is Kate Bravery. Kate is Senior Partner, Advisory and Insight Leader at Mercer. Her role involves strategising growth opportunities for Human Capital Consulting, bringing new products to market and supporting the business’ professional practices. Kate has over 20 years’ experience helping organisations achieve a talent advantage through people, and has expertise in people strategy, talent management, assessment/leadership development and HR process design.

Kate Bravery: First off, wow, what a wealth of knowledge we have accumulated over the last few years. I also have a number of questions. It’s just so interesting to see how broad and diverse the conversation is.

Something that I wanted to highlight today, is the work that we've been covering with the World Economic Forum – the Good Work Alliance – a group of individuals and leading companies that set about to design a framework which could guide the future of work so that it can be flexible, inclusive and fair for all. It was released at Davos just last month, and we've already got 14 leading organisations that have signed up to this framework.

The framework essentially has five pillars. The first one is around a living wage and social justice. The second one is flexibility and protection. The third one is health and wellbeing, the fourth is around what we need to do to drive diversity, equity and inclusion and the final pillar is around fostering employability and a learning culture.

But it is the second pillar, around flexibility and protection, that I wanted to drill down into today. Looking into the data of 11,000 people, which we talk to every year about what's changing around the future of work, and which has influenced what we put into the Good Work Framework, two things really stood out for the UK. The first one was, we really can't separate the agenda of being exhausted and burnout, from the future work and flexible working. Out of the 16 countries that we looked at in the study, the UK has the lowest energy levels coming into this year, with 77% of workers feeling they are at risk of burnout.

The reasons for this are diverse, they are different for knowledge workers, frontline workers, men and women, but it is influencing their thinking about flexible working, because we also asked them, ‘if you forego a pay rise this year, what would you trade?’ Very topical given the conversations around cost of living. There were 20 options, and in the UK, the top four were a blend of flexible working and time off. Yes, they wanted the compressed work week and flexible working, they wanted the option to work anywhere, but they also wanted to have unlimited leave, and also an extra weeks’ paid vacation.

It’s therefore very difficult to have a conversation just on flexible working, that psychological dialogue of being exhausted and burnt out as we've all talked about, really is there. At Mercer, we've been working on flexible working with clients around the world, long before the pandemic hit. But what we are seeing is that some of the more directive strategies are actually expanding some of the pay equity gaps and career equity challenges. So we really do need to make sure that we are not just building it back flexibly, but also fairly.

The second thing I wanted to highlight about the UK market – what you see globally, but that's very acute here, is that executives and employees have very different views about what the future of work looks like. Let me give you some figures: 75% of executives in the UK said essentially we have an apprenticeship model, where people learn and work together, side by side, not remotely. And that's feeding into their perceptions around ‘our culture will be eroded if people don’t come back into the workplace and the worksite setting’. 79% of them are deeply worried that if people don't have time together, they won't build those social connections that have been the fabric of having actually gotten through this period.

Employees in the UK see it quite differently. 71% percent believe that their teams actually have collaborated really well when some are on site and some work remotely. 68% believe the company is actually more successful and better prepared to weather the flexibility needs stemming from inflation or potential recession with a hybrid work model. And 62% said, if remote working or a flexible option is taken off the table, I'm not coming back into the workplace.

So what does our research show that really makes a difference? We looked at those organisations that were growing faster than their peers with more than 10% revenue growth, and found that they are increasing their investment with AI and automation, not just to transform jobs, but also to understand worker preferences with flexible working, and to engage in internal talent marketplaces given a lot of the draw that independent/agency working has to full- and part-time employees. Delivering flex with protection. Secondly, they're making sure that health and wellbeing and training are an essential part of this new work models, and being very transparent about their position on topics such as the 4-day work work, and which jobs can viably be done in a remote or hybrid way, empowering individuals to make those choices.

I think this is an incredibly exciting time, we've got a great opportunity ahead of us, I think we have some unique challenges here in the workforce with the UK. But when we did ask people what would bring them back into the workplace, they did say clearer direction of what the future of work looks like, and what I need to do to make sure that I remain employable, and can stay in the workplace.

And so my last comment, which is echoed in the Good Work Alliance Framework, is that we can't look at working in isolation, we have to look at learning for the future and welfare provision today, espescially for independent workers. And we have to make sure that health and wellbeing, and upskilling and reskilling are part of that agenda. So as we get more flexibility, we use that flexibility to keep people in the workplace for longer.


July 5, 2022 16:00




House of Commons & online


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