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How our new Innovation Unit will break down barriers to flexible working

Flexible working is here to stay. But in some sectors, with specific operational barriers, delivering Good Flexible Work is a huge challenge, and frontline employees are being left behind. Here’s how the Timewise Innovation Unit will break down these barriers and make flex work for everyone.

Breaking barriers to flexible workingBy Emma Stewart MBE, CEO of Timewise

As someone who’s been campaigning for flexible working for 15 years, I’m delighted that the concept has finally landed. From government leaders and policymakers to industry bodies and social campaigners, the message is clear; the days of the standard 9 to 5 working week are over. People want to work flexibly, and when it’s done properly, employers benefit as much as employees. End of.

So having won the argument for why we need flex, the focus needs to be on the how. That means making sure that two-way flexibility – Good Flexible Work that delivers for both employers and employees – is available for everyone who wants it.

In some sectors and roles, this principle is well understood, and flexible roles have followed. But if we don’t tackle it across the board, we’ll end up with a two-tier flexible system, which fails to deliver for people in critical front-line jobs. And that, in a nutshell, is why we’re launching the Timewise Innovation Unit, our new do-tank for creating flexible solutions in hard-to-crack sectors.

Hard-to-crack sectors require innovative solutions

The problem is that, while some sectors are easier to flexify, others have specific operational barriers which are a real challenge to overcome. For example, we know exactly what needs to be done to make office-based jobs more flexible, and we offer consultancy and training on that basis. But a sector like teaching, with a more rigid timeframe, is a different story; it’s hard to flex your start time when class 8E are expecting you for their 9am lesson.

Then there are other sectors in which employees may appear to be working flexibly – nurses, warehouse workers – but in reality have no control over when and where they work. And still others, such as retail or hospitality, in which flexibility may be available, but only at the lower end of the scale. Flexibility in these sectors tends to be designed to suit customers rather than employees, and moving into a better, more senior role just isn’t an option on a part-time basis.

The result is that for 5.5 million shift-based workers – one fifth of the UK workforce – flex isn’t working. Some end up leaving the workforce, because they can’t get the flexibility or predictability they need. Others stay trapped in poorly-paid jobs, unable to take their flex with them up the ladder. That’s not Good Flexible Work, by any measure.

The knock-on effect of this is huge, both for individuals and for society as a whole. In-work poverty, social immobility and career stagnation are all exacerbated by a lack of decent flexible jobs, and the impact on the gender pay gap is well-known.

Driving radical change through in-depth pilot programmes

But making flexibility work for both employers and employees in these sectors isn’t impossible; it’s just much harder. It will take time, resources and radical thought. It will require in-depth analysis of operational barriers, and innovative development and design of new flexible roles. It will need employers to get involved, to work out how these roles can offer two-way flexibility. And, critically, it will need to incorporate robust trialling and rigorous assessment before any solutions are rolled out.

The creation of the Timewise Innovation Unit allows us to do this work, and do it well. Over the next three years, we will run a series of in-depth pilot programmes, in collaboration with employers, trade associations and industry partners. This will see us researching, designing and trialling flexible jobs that suit the operational requirements of a particular sector.

Creating and sharing benchmarks for best practice and job design toolkits

But we’re not stopping there. We’re keen to ensure that the impact of the Innovation Unit is broad as well as deep; there’s no point doing all this work and keeping it to ourselves. So we will be working to pinpoint what Good Flexible Work means within the different roles and sectors. And we will also build a network of change agents – trade bodies, sector leaders and local government agencies – to help us spread the word.

In practical terms, this will involve us creating a series of sector-specific resources, toolkit and guides which will offer practical support to employers who want to act on our learnings. We will also develop Good Flexible Work Standards which set out what decent, two-way flexible jobs should look like, to inform good business practice across the board and catalyse lasting change.

Get involved and help us create Good Flexible Work for all

So if you share our vision for Good Flexible Work for all, why not get involved? We’re fortunate to have an amazing bunch of people on our Advisory Board (see below), but there are many other ways that you can take part in this valuable work:

  • If you’re an employer who is facing huge operational barriers to flexibility, talk to us. It would be great to explore the possibility of piloting in your sector.
  • If you’re a policymaker, either national or regional, who would like to help us share what we’re learning and encourage others to act, get in touch. I’d be delighted to include you in our network of change agents.
  • If you’re a trade association or industry body, and would like to discuss carrying out a deep-dive into flexibility in your field, contact us to start the ball rolling.

It’s brilliant that the argument for flexible working has been won, but Good Flexible Work is still out of reach for too many. I’m excited about using the Innovation Unit to create two-way flexibility in sectors which might otherwise have been ignored; the hard work starts here.

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