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Leading the charge for flexible futures in Scotland

We’re half way through a two-year project with the Scottish government to scale up flexible working. What are the lessons for Scotland and the rest of the UK?

By Emma Stewart, Co-founder, Timewise

Scotland windfarm

In 2020, while the UK was grappling with the pandemic, the Scottish government recognised that the impact on workplaces was likely to be long term, and that companies would need help to recalibrate their working practices in response. So they commissioned Timewise to create a Scotland-wide programme to create deep, lasting change at a systemic level.

These issues were already on the radar in Scotland; the government were conscious that many people who needed to work flexibly (such as parents, carers and those with disabilities) were struggling to access good quality work, and had already commissioned us to undertake a feasibility study to identify potential solutions. But it quickly became clear that the pandemic was only likely to amplify these issues, and that something large scale needed to be done.

Our response was Fair Flexible Work for Scotland, a programme aiming to build on the learnings from lockdown, help employers and employees reap the benefits of a shift towards flexible working, and ensure that those who needed flex to work are not left behind as the economy starts to recover.

To achieve this, we set out to encourage employers to advertise more jobs as flexible from day one, and to provide more tailored support for employees to help them find and secure the flexibility they need. Initially envisaged as an eight-month programme, it has now been extended to two years, to allow for a wider scope.

So, as we approach the half-way point, it’s a good time to take stock of what have we achieved and what our next steps will be.

Providing guidance to help employers adapt to the pandemic and pursue flex hiring

The first strand of our programme set out to help employers adapt their working practices through and beyond the pandemic, and to ensure that they did so in a sustainable, inclusive way. We were also keen to encourage them to widen their recruitment processes to include flexible hiring.

So, supported by Flexibility Works, we ran a series of webinars for employers, offering clear, practical guidance on offering fair flexible work, and created two toolkits, one for employers, and one for employees.

In total, almost 500 organisations accessed our webinars, and more than 1,600 received our toolkits. And there’s every suggestion that they are acting on what they have learned. 85% of attendees noted that their session gave them practical ideas and action that they can take forward, and a number of organisations have contacted us for follow-up advice.

Using a network of change agents to widen impact and speed up progress

From the outset, we knew that the best way to have a wide impact would be to share knowledge, insights and best practice with influencers on the ground, and encourage them to pass it on. So the second strand of the programme was to create a network of change agents, and give them the training, tools and resources they need to support the people they work with.

The network includes employer-facing intermediaries (such as Scottish Enterprise, CBI Scotland and CIPD Scotland), and employee-facing intermediaries (including Capital City Partnership, who co-ran this work with us). Our network have advised 1,200 employers and over 1,000 employees; they have also shared our guidance with more than 5,300 employers and 5,800 employees. And we are starting to see evidence of real change in the way they are approaching conversations  as a result.

For example, Scottish Enterprise, who provide business advice and grants for start-ups, are now advising all the organisations they work with to advertise jobs flexibly, and are working with us to build an expectation around this into their formal guidance. Similarly, Edinburgh City Council are now encouraging employers in their Recruitment Incentive Scheme to adapt working pattens to suit candidates with barriers; they are also exploring the idea of incorporating the question ‘Are you a flexible employer?’ into the application process to stimulate action.

Tracking progress on flex hiring with a new Flexible Jobs Index for Scotland

Finally, we know from experience that having hard evidence for the size of a problem is a critical part of making change happen. So the third strand of our programme was a new Scotland-focused Flexible Jobs Index, tracking the proportion of jobs advertised with flexible options at the point of hire, before, during and after the first lockdown.

Our findings were pretty stark: only 1 in 4 jobs advertised in Scotland offer any kind of flexible working. And there has been surprisingly little change during the pandemic; the widespread move towards working from home is not being reflected in the recruitment process.

This lack of flexibly advertised jobs is a clear barrier to fair flex for all; with 3 in 4 jobs off-limits for those who need to work flexibly, opportunities for work or progression are scarce.

What’s next for Scotland – and the rest of the UK?

Looking ahead to the second half of the programme, it’s clear that we have a great deal to build on – and that there are still many hurdles to overcome. Change takes time, but we are keen to keep up the pace and deliver fairer, more inclusive ways of working across Scotland and beyond.

So we’ll continue our work with our network of change agents, and will be seeking to expand it; the more organisations we have on board, the bigger and faster the impact. In particular, we’re planning to work with REC to being recruiters into the network, and we’re talking to Scottish local authorities about joining us too.

We’ll also continue to provide training and guidance for employers on a range of relevant issues, responding to the changes in the workplace. For example, we are planning to run sessions on hybrid working, and on implementing fair flexible work in frontline roles. And of course, we’ll be tracking what works, and sharing what we learn, so that as many organisations as possible get on board with the need for Fair Flexible Work and start to take action.

It’s our hope that the work in Scotland will also inspire and inform change elsewhere. We’re planning to pilot a London-based version of our change agent network, based on our experiences in Scotland, and hopefully, that’s just the start. Our long-term aim is a UK government-led focus on Fair Flexible Work; we’ll keep you posted.

Published May 2021

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