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Flexible Working for All: an action research programme

Timewise is partnering with IES and three trailblazing frontline employers in a two-year action research programme, to show the impact on employees and organisations of embedding good flexible work for all.

By Dr Sarah Dauncey, Head of Partnerships and Practice, Timewise

The pandemic intensified existing labour market inequalities in access to flexible working arrangements. Half of working adults worked from home at times during the pandemic, but this opportunity wasn’t available to frontline workers.

And while 84% of those who had to work from home because of government regulations said they wanted to work in a hybrid way in the future, equivalent flexibility wasn’t available to many of those in location-based roles. The result is a risk of two-tier workforces developing, split into flexible working haves and have nots, amplifying existing inequalities.

It’s for this reason that we have joined with IES and three frontline employers – Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, Sir Robert McAlpine and Wickes – in a two-year action research programme designing, testing and embedding flexible working solutions. It’s funded by Impact on Urban Health and Barclays Life Skills, and the findings from the study will be shared widely to drive change among employers.

Inequality in access to flexible working arrangements

Even before the pandemic, frontline work was overrepresented by young people, those on lower pay, and people from minoritised ethnic groups. Typically, these roles can be physically challenging with less opportunity for autonomy and control over working patterns, factors that negatively affect health and wellbeing.

As many frontline roles involve delivering care and services to other people, frontline employees were most exposed to Covid-19. In contrast, desk-based and knowledge workers were more shielded from the risk of infection, and had more options about when, where and how they worked.

Additionally, flexible working is heavily concentrated in high-paid roles and, consequently, is more prevalent in London and the South-East than in any other region. Geographical inequality in access to flexible working arrangements is largely a feature of sectoral variation, and local and combined authorities are actively working to ‘level up’ through good work and inclusive economy agendas. But there remains a likelihood that where you live can determine your access to flexible work.

These labour market patterns are often replicated within organisations, with disparities between employees working in frontline and site-based roles and those who are more desk-based. These have become starker with the increased focus on location-based flexibility. Remote and hybrid working have become synonyms for ‘flexible working’, and time-based flexibility, which is more feasible for those unable to change where they work, is being sidelined as a result.

Developing a fairer and more consistent approach to flexible working

Our new programme of research and action seeks to tackle these inequalities, widening access to flexible working and implementing it fairly across organisations. It has been built in partnership with like-minded organisations, including three employers who are committed to reducing organisational disparities in access to flexible working, and improving the health and wellbeing of their employees.

We began by devising a two-year programme of activity and establishing a steering group comprised of leading practitioners and experts. The group includes members from the three participating employers, British Retail Consortium, Build UK, Business for Health, CBI, Impact on Urban Health, and NHS England. It has informed the direction of the programme and will provide strategic oversight throughout its duration.

The programme falls into four parts:

1. Developing fair flexible principles

The first phase of the programme, which was completed in the summer, involved consultation with the steering group to develop a set of guiding principles for the development of a fairer and more consistent, organisation-wide approach to flexible working. These relate to seven key organisational areas, including: leadership, manager capability, recruitment and communications. They will be used and adapted by our participating employers to support their work to embed flexible working and align it with other priorities, like diversity and inclusion.

2. Designing and testing practical solutions with our partner employers

Next, we’ll collaborate with our employer partners to identify areas for action to widen access to flexible working, particularly among those in frontline or site-based roles who currently have limited access to flexible working arrangements. Timewise consultants will work closely with the employers to build and deliver interventions that will create change. For instance, by coaching managers to help them become more effective in managing individuals and teams working flexibly and building peer support networks.  

3. Building the evidence base to better understand the impact of flexible working on individuals and organisations

We’ll then collaborate with IES to gather learnings from the programme. These will inform our future activity and influence participating employers and the wider sectors represented by them: health, construction and retail.

A key piece of evidence we’ll be seeking is the impact of access to good quality flexible working arrangements on employees, in the context of their experience of wellbeing, health and job satisfaction. We’ll also be evaluating its impact on the organisations in terms of their ability to retain employees and reduce sickness and absence, therefore their capacity to increase productivity.

4. Sharing insights to improve job quality for frontline employees across the UK

Having embedded a set of fair flexible principles, and developed solutions with three major frontline employers, we’ll then be in a position to share new models of practice to open access to flexible working arrangements in sectors with substantial operational barriers to implementing them effectively.

Critically, we’ll be able to use the evidence we’ve captured to inform policymakers and employers, and drive action to improve job quality and wellbeing among millions of frontline and site-based workers across the UK.

This programme of work has long been necessary, and the cost of living crisis has given it an added significance. There has never been a more important time to invest in workforce development, and to create a model that can drive wider change. We look forward to sharing our findings with you as they emerge.

Published November 2022

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