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The flexible working have-nots need us to take action, now

Our Covid-19 support work with employers has highlighted a worrying risk – the evolution of two-tier workplaces, split into flex haves and have-nots. We all need to take action to make sure this doesn’t continue.

The work we do here at Timewise can be summed up in one short sentence: Making good jobs flexible, and making flexible jobs good.

But over the last five months, while we’ve been delivering our free Covid-19 support programme to hundreds of organisations and employees, we have noticed a worrying trend that affects both parts of this story.

As people lose their jobs, our hard-fought progress on flex is being halted

Firstly, as many organisations fight to stay in business, and hang on to as many of their employees as they can, there’s a risk that work will become more flexible but less ‘good’. Flexible work done badly is counterproductive; instead of helping employees reduce or have more control over their time, it can lead to extreme working hours and blurred boundaries.

This is bad news for everyone, but particularly affects women and people with caring or other responsibilities. It has been exacerbated during the pandemic by complications around childcare, with many being forced to quit their jobs. And for those who are able to stay and renegotiate their hours, there’s an increased risk of getting trapped in roles with reduced opportunities for progression.

A survey of 20,000 mothers by Pregnant Then Screwed bears this out, noting that 65% of mothers who have been furloughed, and 46% of mothers who have been made redundant, said a lack of childcare was the reason. Data from the IFS highlighted the female/male split, with mothers being 47% more likely to have permanently lost their jobs or quit than fathers.

Secondly, as many frontline industries struggle to retain workers due to the economic impact on their businesses, thousands of existing flexible jobs – those that are insecure and precarious – will either become more insecure or disappear entirely. A survey from the Resolution Foundation suggested that close to one-third of the lowest-earning fifth of employees had been furloughed or lost their job, compared to less than one-in-ten of the top fifth of employee earners.

It’s not a huge leap to suggest that a significant proportion of these employees can only work if they have a flexible role. They will not only need retraining to find jobs in other industries; they will also need those jobs to incorporate part-time or flexible options. Given that only 15% of job vacancies have, until now, been advertised as flexible, they are likely to struggle.  And with the economy reeling from the largest decline since records began, things will probably get worse.

As remote work becomes the default, those who can’t work from home are hardest hit

An additional problem is that the massive increase in the number of people working from home, while positive in many respects, has meant that ‘flexible work’ has become almost synonymous with ‘remote work’. While some organisations, particularly those who are experienced at flexible working, are doing it well, others are struggling to embed it properly. And others still are facing an almost impossible challenge, due to the nature of their business.

We need to pay more attention to the fact that not all roles can be carried out from home. Remote working has limited benefits to the millions of frontline workers, whether in retail, construction, social care or the NHS. And frontline sectors like these, which are being either decimated or overstretched by the pandemic, have neither the time nor the money to invest in exploring flexible strategies.

We also need to remember that other forms of flexible working – such as part-time, staggered start and finish times, and core hours – are equally valid, and may be more suited to roles for which remote working is a challenge. But as a result of the pandemic and subsequent enforced remote working experiment, these other kinds of arrangement are not getting the same amount of attention.

The risk is a two-tier workplace, split into flexible haves and have-nots

What all this adds up to is a potential split in the workforce. The fortunate ones will be flexible haves; working in roles which are straightforward to make flexible, or in organisations with the time and money to invest in change programmes. Others, the flexible have-nots, will struggle in roles which are either being flexed to the extreme or which can’t easily be adapted to home working, within sectors that are too busy firefighting to focus on anything else.

Left unchecked, this will lead to a two-tier workplace in which only the lucky ones get to balance their work with the rest of their lives – or to work at all.

Four actions we can all take to avoid the risk becoming reality

So let’s not leave it unchecked. Instead, it’s up to all of us, in our individual companies and sectors, to accept that this is a risk we don’t want to take, and start working to tackle it. We’ve identified four actions that will help make this happen

  1. Creating more examples of how to make good jobs flexible and flexible jobs good

    The more examples we have of innovative ways to deliver flexible working, especially in these hard-to-flex frontline sectors, the easier it will be for others to follow suit.

    Timewise has already delivered pilots in social care, nursing and retail within our Innovation Unit, and are mid-way through similar action research projects within teaching and construction. We’re also working on a new way to share our learnings more widely; watch this space.

    But we’d like to do more of this work; if you’re interested in talking to us about your particular challenges, please get in touch.

  2. Building the case for fair flexible work for the post-pandemic workplace

    The business case for flexible working is changing, and needs to evolve further. The huge Covid-driven demand we are seeing from employees makes offering flex more critical than ever for companies which want to be employers of choice.

    This means leaders and HR teams need to consider how to offer all types of flexible working – not just remote – to retain good talent. And they need to develop new organisational capabilities to ensure that these new ways of working are fair, consistent and inclusive. If you’re ready to take this step, we can help.

  3. Creating and advertising more roles with flexible options

    If people who need a flexible role can’t find one, they will stay locked out of the workplace for many years to come. As we build back from this new recession, let’s make sure we retain what we’ve learnt, and create jobs which are as flexible as possible, and advertised as such, so that good flexible work becomes the reality for more of us.

  4. Ensuring that job creation schemes have flexible working hardwired in

    The role of the state will be critical in helping businesses to do this. But as we have explained elsewhere, on the topic of the chancellor’s October Job Support Scheme, even the best intentioned legislation can work against flexibility. Going forwards, any new wage subsidy and job creation schemes should encourage employers to offer not just good jobs but good flexible jobs.

The fact is, when we come out of the pandemic and the associated recession, we don’t just want a jobs recovery. We want a good jobs recovery, and a good flexible jobs recovery. We want businesses and policymakers to understand that it is in their interests to offer fairness through flexibility.

Right now, we’re facing a unique opportunity to recalibrate ways of working. Let’s not waste it; it’s up to all of us to make sure we get it right.

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