Why now is not the time for employers to turn their back on flexible working
Falling opportunities for remote working threatens workforce productivity and inclusivity, and it could be a costly mistake for us all.
For many workers in their 50s and beyond, flexible working is essential. And with thousands of older workers disengaging from the workplace, employers and government can reap the benefits of flexible working.
New research from LinkedIn reveals that the number of remote job adverts has declined in the UK for the fifth month in a row. Employers are reportedly attempting to bring workers back into the office after remote working spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, citing concerns around productivity and a need to respond to economic uncertainty. However, rolling back flexible working practices is no guaranteed solution for delivering the lift in productivity the economy needs.
Three-quarters of executives responding to LinkedIn’s survey say they plan to reduce flexible working within their organisation. But for many older workers, the ability to work flexibly is of critical importance when looking for employment. An ONS survey of 50-70 year olds who left the workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic and were considering a return to work found that the possibility of working from home is the second most important factor in choosing a new job. The most frequent answer was flexible working hours. For many, it is not just a preference but essential for balancing work with caring responsibilities or health conditions.
Flexibility is an essential component of job design if we want to secure the most diverse and productive work force possible. The UK labour market is an ageing one. The country has seen record-breaking levels of job vacancies outstripping available workers who can fill them. A growing number of older workers are disengaging from the workplace. The latest ONS data shows that over 330,000 more workers aged 50-64 years old are now economically inactive than before the first outbreak of COVID-19.
The seismic shift in work practices during the COVID-19 pandemic could prove essential in responding to the challenges and opportunities of today’s labour market. The rapid growth in flexible working practices, which are inclusive and attractive to many workers and employers, could help many older people to remain in the workforce.
Data from LinkedIn indicates flexible and remote working remains popular with employees. The company found that remote jobs comprise 12% of job ads but attract 20% of applicants. In its recent Global Talent Trends Report, LinkedIn found that workers now prioritise being able to work flexibly over salary and bonuses.
Flexible working might not be right for every employee or for every role. But the OECD estimates up to 40% of jobs in the economy could be fulfilled flexibly. This should be viewed as an opportunity to attract more workers rather than an obstacle to be overcome.
The government has a role to play too, supporting employers to offer flexible working is key to economic growth.
No single model can meet the needs of all workers, and this applies to flexible working. Flexible working does not have to mean that employees never enter their physical place of work. A growing number of people are embracing a hybrid working model, where the benefits that come both from being in the office and at home can be combined. Flexible working also extends beyond where somebody works to encompass working patterns alongside other accommodations. Employers should recognise that flexibility is constant and fluctuating and be open to adapting working practices as employees’ circumstances and needs change.
The government has a role to play too; supporting employers to offer flexible working is key to economic growth. Making good on the 2019 manifesto promise to give all employees the right to ask for flexible working from day one would protect workers’ rights and signal to employers that the government values the concept of flexible working and the benefits it can bring.
Government can offer clear guidance to help employers navigate complex issues such as employees who might feel unsafe about working in an office environment because of health risks but feel pressure from employers to return. Government should be encouraging, rewarding and demonstrating best practice while tax reforms could help to act as an incentive for remote working such as reinstating the tax relief for people working from home and simplifying taxation around travel expenses.
The COVID lockdown created a seismic shift in the design of work that has both positive and negative impacts. For many employees it has created a lasting legacy that should not be considered a temporary blip brought on by unprecedented times that can now be wiped away. Employers who embrace the benefits will reap the rewards.