Because unhappy employees show it’s not what most organisations think.

Work flexibility might originally have seemed like an easy win. After initial productivity and collaboration concerns and practical policy considerations, most UK organisations have majorly upped their flexibility game. For example, a recent study found 96% of UK organisations are now more flexible about where employees work, and 87% allow employees to schedule hours with more flexibility.

But employee engagement remains low (21% globally and only 14% in Europe), burnout remains high (36% of Brits say they're on the brink), and attrition is as much a threat as ever (75% of UK employees are considering quitting).

Let’s explore what flexibility in the workplace might look like – and unpick what true work flexibility means.

Work flexibility doesn’t only mean remote work

Let’s start with an important observation: flexible work doesn’t equate to remote work. Especially if remote work is mandated. As Partner at EY UK, Liz Campbell, puts it: ‘Although often conflated, flexible working is not quite the same as working from home.’

Work flexibility doesn’t mean any single thing. Rather, it refers to a movement away from the nine-to-five office-based model of work that’s been dominant for the last century. lists eight types of flexible working:

  • Job sharing

Multiple employees split the hours of one full-time role.

  • Working from home

Employees work from home or otherwise outside the office at least sometimes.

  • Part-time work

Employees work fewer than full-time hours, usually for fewer days.

  • Compressed hours

Employees work full-time hours but over fewer days.

  • Flexi-time

Employees work full-time hours but have flexibility over start and finish times.

  • Annualised hours

Employees work a set number of hours annually but with flexibility to choose when.

  • Staggered hours

Employees have different start, break, and end times to other employees.

  • Phased retirement

Employees can choose to cut down their hours or work part-time as they get older.

Flexibility has been becoming a more important priority for employees and jobseekers for years, but COVID-19 kickstarted momentum. ONS research shows nearly half of UK adults worked from home during the pandemic, giving millions of people a taste of life from the other side of the fence. (And it's worth noting, this compares to only 17.4% working from home globally, making flexibility a particularly important issue in the UK).

Although this movement also brought profound challenges, most employees’ experience was positive. For example, UK home-workers cite many major benefits to remote working:

  • Flexible scheduling – 50%
  • Lack of commute – 43%
  • Can care better for family, pets and relatives – 34%
  • Save money – 33%
  • Reduced anxiety and stress – 32%
  • Improved mental, physical or spiritual health – 25%
  • Ability to live where you want – 20%
  • Reduced office politics – 19%
  • Freedom to travel or relocate – 18%

The upshot has been a huge uptick in employees and jobseekers looking for flexible working opportunities. For example, in February 2022 84% of UK workers who’d worked from home during the pandemic said they planned to continue working flexibly from home and the office in the future.

Following from this, workplace flexibility has become a major tool for attracting, engaging and retaining employees. And of course, from there, better business outcomes like increased profitability, agility and innovation.

But as organisations struggle to make flexibility work for both their people and the organisation, the right answer remains elusive.

Flexibility in the workplace has no simple answer.

Most UK employees state a broad preference for flexibility but the more granular spread shows there is no simple solution. Some 42% said they want to work primarily from home but sometimes in the office; 24% want an equal split; 18% want to work mostly from the office but sometimes at home; 8% want to work all their time in the office.

When every solution is wrong for someone, the tightrope becomes difficult to tread. That’s reflected in the continuing battle to hire and keep talent.

HR News report that some 85% of UK organisations were affected by 2021’s tsunami of resignations and face continuing challenges to regain solid ground, for example. And while it might seem that the initial storm has passed with resignation rates slowing, the long-term weather forecast doesn’t bode well. A recent PwC survey showed that only 19% of UK non-management employees felt very satisfied with their role. Stats like that strike fear into the hearts of executives who know the long-term costs of attrition.

They’re also an important indication that the conversation extends beyond workplace flexibility – or at least, beyond most organisations’ current understanding of it.

The truth is, many organisations are offering flexible working of some sort. Prompted by necessity, many organisations have developed hybrid working policies. Flummoxed executives have worked tirelessly to make flexibility in the workplace work.

But in many cases, it hasn’t been enough. Consider the recent reports that 80% of UK businesses have improved their flexible working offering since COVID, and 73% believe employees are satisfied. And yet, only 9% of UK workers feel enthused by their work and workplace in 2022.

This disparity begs the question: what’s the missing link?

Flexibility is much more profound than hybrid work

Let’s come back to the official government definition of flexible work: ‘Flexible working is a way of working that suits an employee’s needs, for example having flexible start and finish times, or working from home.’

Many organisations have focused on the latter examples but it’s the opening emphasis on employee needs that deserves most attention. Flexibility in the workplace might look like flexible schedules or remote working – but that’s not the true essence of flexibility.

The essence of flexibility is employee orientation: making work work better for your people. And that’s true on a case-by-case basis. Notice the definition’s use of the singular employee over employees as a group.

This emphasis on employee experience – EX – has been gathering major momentum over recent years, exacerbated by the pandemic. For HR leaders, the conversation around work flexibility can’t happen divorced from this wider consideration.

Changing preferences towards flexible work are part of a more profound shift, seeing many employees reconsider what they want from work and life.

Cranfield School of Management explains how this shift has come about, as remote working fostered for many employees both a disconnect with their workplace and renewed control over their schedule. These dual forces have fundamentally changed the employee/employer relationship: ‘As we move to a post-pandemic world, the employment relationship is being shaped by employees reconsidering what they want from work and how it fits with their future life plans.’

The upshot is, flexibility in the workplace isn’t only a conversation around the benefits your organisation offers. It’s a more nuanced conversation about the role your organisation plays for your people.

How does your organisation empower your people as unique individuals? How does your organisation support employees to have thriving lives outside work? Does your organisation come from the perspective that your employees have complex, multifaceted lives, of which work is only a fraction?

The pandemic might have been the trigger event for such questions but continuing compounding pressures – like the cost of living crisis – mean they’re as urgent as ever. Your answers as an organisation will shape how employees view you: necessary evil, or supportive ally. True work flexibility is an important part of proving you’re the latter.

Work flexibility is about much more than remote work, or hybrid working, or any one particular workplace flexibility programme. There are no easy answers and what’s right for one organisation won’t be right for another. True flexibility is about a practice of engaging with your people as whole, complex individuals and developing policies from this employee-oriented perspective.