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By Amy Butterworth, Consultancy Director
The year ahead is set to be a big one for working practices. The right to request flexible working from the first day in a new job will come into effect on 6 April – something we’ve long been calling for (and would love to see go further). And there are strong indications that we will see a change of government, to a party whose intentions include extending workers’ rights, closing major employment gaps, and implementing a right to switch off.
Outside of these two big changes, what does 2024 hold? Here are some of the flexible working trends we will be keeping a close eye on this year.
Recent months have seen an intensification of efforts by some employers to increase the amount of time their employees spend in the office. From a top City law firm tracking when employees enter and leave their headquarters, to Nationwide scrapping its ‘work anywhere’ policy, the direction of travel is towards a more structured approach of set days on which employees are expected to be in the building.
However, despite a slew of articles blaming the WFH culture for everything from delaying HS2 to shrinking the car market, few organisations have mandated that their employees must come back full-time. And according to a British Chambers of Commerce and Cisco survey, only one in four companies expect their staff to be in the office full-time in the coming years.
Understandably, employees are keen to retain the home-work balance that they gained following the pandemic; the cost of living crisis has also made people extra keen to limit their commuting costs. And as the protests from Amazon employees over a return-to-office mandate have shown, they are unlikely to give WFH up without a fight.
We are firm advocates for the value of in-person time, believing that cohesion and collaboration are improved when team members spend some of their working time together. But we also believe employers need to take steps to ensure they deliver that value, and create a culture in which employees are supported to make both their in-office and remote time count. And that setting an arbitrary number of days that people need to come in, without thinking about what they are coming in for, isn’t the right way to go about it.
The evidence suggests that a degree of WFH is here to stay, and it’s in employers’ interests to accept it; as Clare McCartney from the CIPD has noted, “It’s likely that organisations are going to struggle to attract and keep talent if they want people in the office full-time, five days a week.”
Early 2024 will see new measures introduced which aim to reduce net migration – but will also reduce the pool of people coming from abroad to work.
The policy change means that people coming to the UK on health and care visas will not be able to bring dependents with them (the NHS is not affected). It also increases the minimum salary threshold for employees coming to the UK on a skilled worker visa from £26,200 to £38,700, which will hit sectors including hospitality and manufacturing.
The immigration minister Robert Jenrick has accepted that we “will see a reduction in the number of people coming to work in social care from overseas” and that “we hope and expect [vacancies] will be filled by British workers”. But there are already a large number of economically inactive adults in the UK; last year’s ONS figures put it at around 9 million people, of which 1.7 million said they want a job. So employers in these sectors will need to be more creative if they want to encourage homegrown talent to fill these roles.
Flexible working is a powerful talent attraction tool, and the lack of it can make people leave; the CIPD found last year that 4 million people had changed careers due to a lack of flex. And while some of the affected sectors are location-based (and so less compatible with remote working), there are a range of other options.
So, employers who are serious about attracting UK residents back into work would be wise to think outside the box and explore the viability of arrangements such as part-time and compressed hours. We’ve made flex work on construction sites, and have been exploring a range of options with Wickes; creative thinking can make the seemingly impossible possible.
January saw the news that Asda is trialling a four-day working week, as part of a drive to hold on to in-store managers. Asda is one of the biggest organisations to run this kind of trial so far, and is doing so as part of a ‘case for change’ which will also explore shorter shifts and other flexible arrangements.
Interest in the four-day week has grown at pace since the results of a six-month pilot involving 61 companies were published last year. And it’s certainly popular with employees; Gartner research noted that 63% of candidates surveyed ranked it as their top offering, and online bank Atom Bank saw a 500% increase in job applications immediately after announcing it was introducing a four-day week for its 430 staff.
However, there has also been a government backlash towards public-sector organisations who have carried out trials, with South Cambridgeshire District Council (SCDC) ordered to end theirs by the local government minister, and being issued with a ‘best value notice’ when they refused to do so.
We’re fully behind the drive to experiment with different flexible working models, and believe pilots are an excellent, lower-risk way to do so. And while we don’t agree with the Gartner analysis that 2024 is the year that the four-day week goes from radical to routine, we hope and expect to see more examples of four-day week trials in the year ahead. We’ll be keeping a close eye on the SCDC pilots (due to finish in March this year), and on whether other public sector organisations take the plunge despite the censure that SCDC received.
These are just three examples of how 2024 is likely to be a year of meaningful change in working practices; and our work to drive that change will continue. We’ve got some exciting projects to share with you, including a listening project supported by Phoenix which will explore part-time experiences.
We’re also increasing our focus on ways of working to support inclusion. One such project involves us working in partnership with Runnymede to research the relationship between flexible working and ethnicity (supported by Impact on Urban Health).
And of course, we’ll be working with more employers and sector groups to design, test and implement sustainable flexible working, both for office-based and frontline employees. How will the flexible working market look by the end of 2024? We can’t wait to see.
Published January 2024