Can the UK Fix its Flexible Working Gap? Digging into PayFit's Flexible Working Survey Results

Rachel Greenway
Last updated on February 12, 2024

Flexible working isn’t that new of a concept anymore. But recent events such as the Pandemic have brought it to the forefront of everyday life. Now, with new flexible working legislation on the horizon, it’s once more become part of the national conversation, drawing interest from employees and organisations across the UK.

But the narrative is shifting. It’s pretty clear that flexible working will have some role to play in the future of work. The bigger question now is, ‘Are businesses prepared for this?’

We wanted to find out. So we ran a survey to get a snapshot of the current state of flexible working in the UK but, crucially, through the eyes of employees:

  • What do they understand the concept of flexible working to be?

  • What do they want and expect from employers in terms of policy?

  • Most importantly, are employees happy with current flexible working arrangements? And if not, what do they really want from these schemes?

What we found suggests there is work to be done: 83% of those surveyed felt their company’s current flexible working policy needed improvement, pointing to a growing flexible working ‘policy gap’ businesses need to address.

Furthermore, employees are placing increasing importance on flexibility as a benefit. Nearly 50% of people we surveyed said they would reject a 15% raise if it meant giving up a position that offered more flexibility. 

In this post, we’ll drill down deeper into some of these results. For the full findings, you can download our dedicated whitepaper on the topic which dives deeper into the results and what HR leaders can do to reshape the flexible working narrative at their organisations. 

The state of flexible working in 2024: from the employee POV

To start, we wanted to understand what flexible working means to employees in 2024 to have a clearer idea of what kinds of arrangements and policies are needed to cater to more. 

It turns out:

There’s more than just ‘one way’ to do flexible working 

In the wake of the pandemic, remote working went from a ‘nice to have’ to a ‘must have’.

Many existing flexible and remote working policies are a legacy from that time. But, attitudes around flexibility have only continued to develop since then. 

In particular, it’s the perceptions of employees that are rapidly evolving around flexibility. This correlates strongly with our findings. It’s no longer just about ‘working from home’ - over half (52%) of respondents said flexible working was about choosing where and when they would like to work. 32% said it was about having the freedom to fit important ‘life errands’ around work. And for 31%, it was about choosing the hours they could work.  

What flexible working means to employees

What can we take from this? For one, that people have different definitions of flexible working and weren’t afraid to share this. And this makes sense, given how the idea of individualism has really taken flight in our society these past few years. This means employees will have different ideas of what they want from flexibility when they join your organisation. In other words, everyone has their own optimal way of working, and this should be celebrated, not just tolerated.

To start, it’s important that organisations accept this concept fully. But where leadership buy-in isn’t a given, it’s up to HR leaders to step up and champion this idea loudly so this becomes supported at all levels of the organisation. As Luke O’Mahoney, Founder of SapienX puts it:

Luke O'Mahoney on flexible working

But how well is this idea currently playing out in organisations? Are employees happy with the current level of freedom they have around choosing how, when and where they get to work?

Current flexible working policies: there’s room for improvement 

We’re already hearing rumblings in the labour market. Despite being on a rollercoaster that’s taken us from the Great Resignation to the Great Re-Shuffle through to the Great Big Stay, one thing has become clear - the expectations of employees are higher than ever.

Money is no longer the sole motivator. Employees are more purpose and happiness-driven, seeking out opportunities and roles that better support their wellbeing and lifestyle choices. 

Given this, are employees happy with the existing flexible working policies and arrangements on offer?

Turns out, the answer isn’t a resounding yes. 83% of employees surveyed felt their company’s current flexible working policy needed improvement. 

With flexibility no longer being just a token ‘perk’, the consequences of not listening to employee needs and integrating these into policy can be costly. But what do employees specifically want organisational policy to do better around flexibility?

What do employees want from flexible working policies? 

From the diverse range of preferences employees have to the need for more support, trust and more precise guidelines, here is what employees have said they want from flexible working arrangements in 2024 and beyond. 

They want clearer guidelines 

For one, they want more detailed flexible working guidelines. The pandemic brought about a lot of progress in the workplace. But also a lot of confusion and disruption. 

Businesses had to adapt quickly to develop policies that not only made sense for that moment in time but also aligned with a rapidly shifting landscape of workplace wants and desires. Given this, many employees now feel there’s a lack of clarity around what they can and cannot do when working flexibly. 

More specifically, 34% of employees shared that they wanted more explicit guidelines around flexible working and expressed that they didn’t feel comfortable requesting more flexible working arrangements from their manager(s). And this could be a problem given we’re only weeks away from the new legislation becoming law. 

When in force, the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill will grant millions of UK workers the right to request adjustments to particular terms and conditions of employment, including working hours, times and locations.

Alongside the Bill, workers will also have the right to request flexible working from day one of a new job.

But striking the right balance between developing working arrangements that are flexible but also structured enough isn’t a simple task. Nevertheless, it’s crucial to get this right if employers and HR teams are to retain talent and maintain engagement. 

As discussed in the paper, it’s crucial to establish clear ‘rules of play’ and continuous feedback loops that direct reports and their managers can use to stay accountable around work commitments while enjoying all the freedoms flexible working offers.

what employees want from flexible working policies

They want more trust from management 

Our survey revealed just how critical trust is to the discussion and implementation of flexible work. 

Trust from management is what gives employees the autonomy they truly need to define how best they work. But when it comes to existing flexi-working practices, trust is lacking. 

Specifically, 25% of our respondents said they would like more trust from management when choosing how, where and when to work. But, there are other indicators that point to fractures in employee-employer relations around the topic of flexible work. These include anxieties employees may have around the ‘optics’ of engaging with flexible working policies and feelings of seeming ‘irrelevant’ or ‘replaceable’ if they work from a different location or during different hours. 

As with many workplace discussions, culture also comes into the picture. Over 30% of our respondents said they want to work for a company where the culture embraces and encourages flexibility

Of course, trust isn’t built in a day. It takes conscious effort and a desire, at all levels of an organisation, to not just talk your talk but walk your walk. But the same thinking can be applied in developing flexible working models; step-by-step you begin to create policies that don’t just look good on paper but that become an integral part of how your company operates and treats its staff.

Luck Dookchitra, VP of People at performance & enablement platform, Leapsome, believes psychological safety is core to this:

Luck Dookchitra on flexible working

Additional findings and discoveries 

In addition to the above, we uncovered a few other trends around younger workers and cost-saving as a leading advantage that workers prize around flexibility. 

When it comes to flexibility, younger workers need a bit more guidance

It’s no secret that flexible working has become a key job preference among younger workers. Younger talent is simply no longer interested in the traditional 9-to-5. But one theme that kept cropping up throughout our data is that younger generations feel unsupported. 

Younger workers, in particular (spanning the age groups of 18-24), have faced challenges in making use of flexible working models. More specifically, they feel they’re not supported enough and feel threatened by more traditional organisational attitudes that prize ‘optics’ and ‘visibility’ above everything else. 84% of respondents who wanted clearer flexible working guidelines were between the ages of 18 and 34.

At the same time, our research found younger workers were twice as likely to be distracted when working flexibly which suggests younger workers might need more care, attention and mentoring when working this way. HR leaders should think about how they can build flexible working models that better engage younger workers. It’s not about ‘carrot and stick’ but about empowering younger workers to find more compelling ‘triggers’ for motivation and develop the accountability and independence they need to manage their work day in an effective way that supports their individual needs. 

Of all the benefits of flexible working, cost-saving is one of the most attractive 

When we asked employees what they liked most about working flexibly, we were both surprised (and not surprised!) to see saving money come out on top.

Of course, the cost of living has featured firmly in the minds of employees over the past couple of years, and many companies have begun to put financial wellbeing initiatives and guidance in place to support staff better through these challenges. But these findings illuminate the key role flexible working could have in further supporting these efforts.

Among other reasons people listed why they liked working flexibly were getting to spend more time with their children and family, having more time to recharge from a high-performance role and getting to work from different locations.

What's working with flexible working

Flexible working is part of the much bigger ‘people-first’ picture 

This last point around employee finances alludes to something more significant: The idea that flexible working doesn’t have to stand on its own in the minds of employees and organisations. 

Financial wellbeing, mental health, flexibility, and overall engagement - all of these areas overlap and intersect, forming a much greater systemic ‘people-first’ picture of how companies should be looking to operate. Improving employee relations in one of these areas will only serve to positively impact the rest, meaning that improving employee experience becomes a much more holistic exercise, rather than focusing on one or two ‘perks’ to win talent over. 

The companies that take this approach are likely to achieve much more sustainable growth and retention over the long term as employees develop more individualism and agency within the workplace. 

Download our whitepaper for more insights…

With the impending legislative changes, it’s time for businesses to review their policies and enhance their offerings to be more flexible. 

The good news is that there’s a wealth of data available for employers to tap into, including payroll data, which can offer better-than-ever insights into what employees truly want, including the findings in this paper. Turning this information into a meaningful employee experience should be on every company’s strategic agenda in 2024 and beyond. 

The research is clear: for sustained success and employee happiness, businesses need to cultivate a workplace culture that embraces flexibility at every touchpoint, delivering relevant flexible working policies that are attuned to real and current needs and trends.  

For more findings on what employees want and the state of flexible working in 2024, be sure to download our full whitepaper: Mind the Flexible Working Gap: What Employees Really Want from Flexibility.  

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