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Flexible working on the frontline: a Timewise Roundtable briefing

Insights and experiences from Timewise and business leaders on how flexible working can be incorporated into frontline roles.


Flexible working on the frontline

The place-based rise in flexible working that evolved during the pandemic has passed frontline workers by. Whilst most office-based employees were, and still are, able to work from home, those who have to be based at a specific location didn’t have that flexibility. And the hype around ‘hybrid working’, and its conflation with ‘flexible working’, have taken attention and resources away from other kinds of flexible arrangement.

The figures are pretty stark: frontline and place-based workers, a category which includes roles as diverse as medical staff, transport workers, teachers, cleaners, retail assistants and construction workers, make up almost half of all UK employees. And yet just 3% of shift workers, which many frontline employees are, have any flexibility in their role.

The result is the risk of a two-tier workforce, split into flex haves and have-nots, in which those who can work in a hybrid way have easy access to flexibility, while those who work in frontline and placed-based roles (which are more challenging to make flexible) are left to struggle on without it. And this is increasingly having a knock-on effect on recruitment and retention, as people who want or need flexibility seek it elsewhere.

But here at Timewise, we know that it IS possible to make place-based and frontline roles more flexible. We’ve carried out pilots in teaching, construction, nursing and retail that explored how innovative job design can create some flexibility around when and how much people work. And we have also shown that investing in flexible working in frontline sectors pays for itself within just a few years, through improved retention and sickness absence. We invited leaders from a range of frontline sectors to come together to talk and learn from each other, discussing the challenges they are facing, the actions they have taken and the outcomes they have achieved. Here are the key themes that came out of our discussion.


Aside from the obvious logistical challenge that remote working is rarely an option for place-based roles, there are some other key issues and barriers that our attendees noted:

The battle for talent against more attractive roles elsewhere

Many frontline industries are struggling with staff shortages – from nursing and care work to construction and engineering. And the reasons why are varied, including rates of pay and unsociable hours or shifts. These both prevent people from wanting to join the industries, and make them more likely to leave.

However, offering some kind of flexible working can help mitigate the ‘brain drain’. It’s been shown, for example, that many teachers who leave for another profession reduce their hours. So making time-based flexibility available within these roles could encourage them to stay on, delay their retirement or join in the first place.

The impossibility of offering the same flex to everyone

Clearly, someone working in an on-site role can’t spend their entire time working from home. So organisations which have a combination of office-based and frontline roles won’t be able to offer everyone the same arrangement. This can be hard when employees look at the flexibility others are getting and want the same.

Some organisations are dealing with this by trying to bring their hybrid employees back into the office, for the sake of solidarity with their colleagues. We’d argue this isn’t the right approach, and only makes sense if it would benefit the on-site colleagues and make a real difference to the team as a whole. Instead, the key is to look at what flexibility CAN be offered within the frontline roles.

‘We’ve always done it this way’

The status quo can be a real barrier to innovation. Sometimes there are structures and processes within an organisation that seem set in stone, without anyone having asked why, or what else could be done instead.

One example cited by an attendee was a local authority’s bin collection service, which had always started at 6am. No one knew why it was scheduled so early, or could think of a good reason why it should stay that way, so they changed it to allow flexibility around start times. Levels of service were unchanged and there were no complaints from residents or employees.

The role of clients and the supply chain

Another factor that frontline organisations have to consider is the demands of clients, customers and the supply chain. For example, if clients expect on-site teams to be available at all hours, or suppliers feel they can deliver whenever they like, it can make it harder to facilitate time-based flexibility.

It’s true that these are factors that need to be worked around, but it can be done. Setting clear expectations with clients at the beginning of a project, for example, makes it possible to move away from industry norms.

The need for industry-wide change

Underpinning this point, as, one attendee noted, is that that some leaders, managers, suppliers and clients have such entrenched mindsets that it will take an industry-level shift to overcome them. We agree, which is why we make a point of carrying out projects and pilots across an industry, usually in partnership with four or five organisations and supported by industry bodies.

For example, we rallied four construction pioneers to work with us on an action research project, supported by Build UK. This allowed us to research, test and trial new approaches for on-site staff, and share our learnings widely. We’ve carried out similar projects in teaching, retail and the NHS.


So, with the above challenges in mind, how can frontline organisations get better at flexible working? Here are some things to consider.

Involve your staff in the process

Begin by exploring what flexible working means to the people in your organisation. While they may understand more common arrangements like part-time and hybrid working, they may not be aware of what else could be possible for their role.

Finding out what the main outcomes they want to achieve from flexible working is a good place to start. It could be as simple as being able to drop off or pick up a school-aged child, a broader issue around work-life balance, or something else entirely.

For example, one of our attendees realised that a top focus area for their employees was career progression and development. They therefore developed a model that included two hours a week from home to achieve this.

Another attendee spoke about running workshops for employees to discuss their needs and wants, which resulted in staff being given one day in every 20 off, and the establishment of core hours outside which people were not expected to respond to emails.

The process is almost as important as the outcome, because involving your employees in the discussions will ensure they feel heard, understand what can and can’t be done, and feel ownership of the solutions.

Invest in job design to explore viable options

Once you know why people want to have more flexibility, you can then look at how to match the flex you can offer to their needs and role. At Timewise, we have developed a ‘Shift-Life Balance’ model which helps frontline employers explore issues around input, stability and advance notice to develop appropriate workloads and patterns.

It’s worth remembering that sometimes, a small change is all it takes to achieve the better balance an employee is seeking. One attendee noted that allowing employees to start just one or two hours later was enough. Another highlighted the feeling of ownership and fairness that employees gained from having input into the rosta, rather than having it imposed upon them.

We ourselves found in our construction pilot that simple changes such as altering the timings of site briefings, and developing a pattern of rotating shifts, made a surprisingly big difference.

Look at changing practices to boost productivity

If you’re willing to move on from ‘we’ve always done it this way’, it’s possible to rework your processes and practices to achieve the same in less time. One attendee described a unit who are paid on the number of jobs they fulfil in a day. They make their own choices about how best to achieve that target and have become more productive as a result.

Another noted that, having introduced some flexibility, “There has definitely been a positive impact on productivity. Morale is much better, and the guys are working harder.”

Upskill managers and embed a culture of trust

Finally, none of these measures will land unless you have established a culture in which people’s lives outside work are respected, and they are trusted to do their best work. And they won’t work in practice unless line managers are trained and encouraged to see them through.

So it’s vital that your leaders set the tone that flexible working is good for the organisation, and should be championed at every level. And it’s worth investing in upskilling your managers to design and advertise flexible roles, and manage flexible teams. This doesn’t mean saying yes to every request; but it does mean creating a collaborative process in which all the options can be explored so that some kind of flexibility is available in every role.

As one of our attendees noted, the talent challenges within frontline roles mean that organisations are going to need to be brave, strike out and do things differently and lead the way for others to follow. If that sounds like you, we’re right behind you; do get in touch if you’d like our help.

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