What is flexible working?


Flexible working patterns provide flexibility around when and where an employee works.

Flexible working is now the norm across modern workplaces and allows for flexibility around where and when an employee carries out their work. A variety of options come under the banner of flexible work and it can include working from home, part-time working, compressed hours, job sharing, hot desking or even picking your own flexible working hours.

History of flexible working

In 1900 people spent far more time at work. The average US worker, for example, spent 2,983 hours working annually. The First and Second World Wars and the Great Depression of the 1930s led to a decline in that number but after 1945 it began to rise again, reaching an average of 1,989 working hours in 1950. 

Since then, there has been a steady decline in the amount of time people spend at work each year and technological advances have meant that the option to work from home has become more common and a useful way to address issues from urban traffic to labour shortages.  

In 1965, German Management Consultant Christel Kammerer proposed allowing employees to choose their own start and end times as a way of getting more women into the workforce. In 1970, NASA engineer Jack Niles coined the phrase telecommuting while working from home.

Recent trends in flexible working

In 2020 the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the move to flexible working with workers across the economy working remotely and staying in contact through new video conferencing technologies.

While in some regions, such as the UK, homeworking has continued to increase since the pandemic there has not been a similar rise in other forms of flexible working. In fact, the UK Officer for National Statistics Labour Force Survey in 2022 showed that workers in a job-share, working flexi-time, compressed hours, part-time hours, term-time working, annualised hours and zero hour contracts had decreased or remained stagnant.  

Advantages of flexible working

Flexible working has made it much easier for workers to balance the commitments of homes and families with their professional responsibilities. With less time commuting or different hours there is more scope to fit in things like school pick-ups and social lives. 

For employers too, it has many advantages. At a time when talent shortages are an increasing problem, they are able to hire people who may be based far from their company offices to work remotely. Companies can now scour a global workforce for the expertise they need. Offering flexibility also makes companies more attractive to prospective employees.

Employers can also enjoy reduced overheads if fewer people attend the workplace at any one time, meaning that small premises may be enough.

Disadvantages of flexible working

There are also disadvantages in flexible working. Employees can become isolated and it has been linked with mental health issues. It can blur the distinction between work and home and they can become less visible, potentially impacting their career progression.

For employers there are worries that a less concrete working structure could lead to lower productivity. Despite rapidly improving technology it can still be difficult for managers to keep track of what employees are doing.

Use case

Multinational consumer goods company Unilever is pioneering new working patterns to create a flexible environment. Its U-Work programme is designed to give employees the freedom and flexibility associated with contract roles with the security and benefits typically linked to regular employment.

Workers in the scheme work on varying assignments and in between assignments are free to do things that are important to them. They get a monthly retainer and a specially designed suite of benefits, whether they are working on an assignment or not. The assignments have varying work patterns, from a few days a week for a few months to short, concentrated bursts of full-time work with breaks in between.