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Investing in flex used to be a barrier for frontline firms. Not any more.

In a breakthrough for frontline sectors, new analysis shows that financial savings can soon recoup the costs of switching to flexible patterns of work. It’s time for firms to grasp the nettle, and move to more modern ways of working.

By Emma Stewart, Development Director, Timewise

NHS workers

These days, most employers have moved beyond the question ‘is flexible working beneficial?’ It’s generally accepted that yes, it is, for both businesses and their people. But many employers in frontline sectors are still prone to thinking ‘it just won’t work in a firm like ours’. To change their mindsets, two hurdles must be overcome: first, proving that flexible working is possible for frontline workers; and secondly, proving that there will be a commercial return on the implementation costs.

Timewise has already proved the first of these over the last 6 years, through our pilots with trailblazing organisations in retail, teaching, construction, the NHS and domiciliary social care. And now we have pretty much proved the second – launching a new report that demonstrates how soon the cost of investment in flexible working can be recouped through savings on sickness absence and replacement costs related to high staff churn. The answer is that so little change is needed, so quickly, that investing in flexible job design really does seem like a no brainer for any frontline business employing around 200+ staff.

What can flexibility look like in frontline sectors?

Frontline workers have been completely left behind in the hybrid working revolution that has happened during the pandemic. Unable to work from home, they have had to carry on commuting, in roles that are often low-paid and physically and mentally challenging. Little wonder that many employers are concerned about the increasing disparities between their frontline and office staff, and are showing an interest in ways of levelling up.

While location-based flexibility has become the norm, time-based flexibility (which might take the form of flexible start and finish times, greater input into shift times, or part-time working), can go some way towards providing equity for those unable to work from home. Timewise’s pilots in the five aforementioned sectors have explored the viability of flexible hours of work, and evidenced that frontline workers really do value having a greater sense of autonomy over their working lives. 

This is backed up in independent research by Understanding Society, which shows that job satisfaction improves significantly as the degree of control over working hours increases.  And the same research also points to a link between job satisfaction and staff retention: three quarters of workers with the lowest satisfaction levels say they would like to leave their job within the next year.

Timewise has shown that it IS possible to fix the lack of flexibility for frontline workers – in the sectors where we ran pilots, we were able to find ways to design frontline jobs with different working patterns that met operational requirements, maintained client expectations, and improved workers’ work-life balance and well-being.

The organisations which took part in the pilots have witnessed the potential that flexibility has; but vast numbers of employers in frontline sectors still struggle to see it as a commercial priority. Currently, 95% of frontline workers are unable to formally work flexi-time. There’s a huge amount of potential to improve job satisfaction and retention rates.

Of course, getting flexible working right requires staff consultation, new job design that meets business and employee needs, trialing the changes, and then evaluating and rolling out. The investment of time and money can seem daunting, so Timewise decided to map out how the return on investment might look, to prove the effort is likely to pay dividends.

What we found

Working together with the Institute for Employment Studies, we undertook break-even analysis to determine what level of savings would be needed over what timeframe, to cover the level of investment in each of our pilot programmes with firms in the five frontline sectors (retail, teaching, construction, the NHS and domiciliary social care). The savings we considered were those made through reduced staff absences and staff churn, and the results showed that very modest reductions would recoup the costs in just a few years.

For example, in a construction firm of 200 employees, 68 will typically leave each year (based on the average industry retention rate) at a total cost of £204,000. The break-even analysis showed that all it takes is for 7.5 fewer staff to leave each year for the investment in flexible working to be recovered within 3 years.

The same size firm will typically lose £177,000 in sickness absence per year, based on the industry average. So, alternatively, it takes just 1 day less of sick leave per person per year to fully recover the cost of investing in flexible working over 3 years.

And that is before any wider benefits resulting from improved flexible working are taken into account, such as improved well-being, increased diversity, wider access to talent and improvements in performance.

Moreover, for larger firms which are embedding flexible working across their whole workforce, the gains would scale up dramatically. Based on the calculations above, we estimate that employers with over 1000 workers could each save over £1m PER YEAR if they invest in flexible working programmes.

What needs to happen next

Surely, given the state of the labour market for these sectors, and rising inequality between office and frontline workers, this is the moment for action. Employers, industry and government can no longer afford to ignore the cost of not investing in flexible working. There is now a commercial as well as social imperative to consider how we can extend the autonomy of office workers to their frontline colleagues.

When frontline workers are given access to more flexible work, their job satisfaction is likely to improve, and they are more likely to stay in their jobs. These five sectors all suffer from acute skills shortages, and between them they employ over 8 million people. Improving retention will therefore have a massive impact on both business profits and working lives.

While employers in frontline sectors need to get flexible working onto their board agenda, intervention will also be needed at a higher level to catalyse change. The Government could help by creating a challenge fund for businesses in frontline sectors, to support workplace trials on flexible job design, in the same way that they provide business with funding for skills development. And industry bodies need to advocate flexible working – not just hybrid working – loudly and clearly, supporting employers with guidance and sharing practical case studies of good practice.  

In the meantime, we at Timewise will continue to build more evidence of ‘what works in practice’, to help drive scalable action. This summer we will be launching a major new programme, supported by Impact on Urban Health and Barclays Life Skills, to track the long-term impact of taking a fairer more consistent approach to flexible working on workers well-being and business performance. We will be working with three large frontline employers across the NHS, construction and retail, and are delighted to announce our first partner will be the leading construction firm Sir Robert McAlpine, who will be testing and embedding flexible working for site based teams. If you’d like to find out more about our plans do get in touch.

Published April 2022

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