There’s long been an appetite for flexible employment, but the changing world of work means a newfound hunger for flexibility has begun to emerge, which some businesses risk not being able to satisfy. I spoke to Oliver Shaw, CEO of Cascade HR (part of IRIS Software Group) about the subject…

If you think about flexible working in simplistic terms, it’s merely a pattern of employment that is different to the normal one. When faced with such a rudimentary definition, it’s easy to see that flexible working is not new. Part-time hours to accommodate childcare needs, for instance, have been offered for decades.

But of course, such a basic outline of the phrase doesn’t cut it – not in today’s world of work. After all, what is normal?

Any HR professional worth their salt will know that all employees (with at least 26 weeks’ service) have a legal right to request flexible working, irrespective of their family arrangements, thanks to regulatory changes introduced in 2014. And highlights that this is ‘a way of working that suits an employee’s needs’. For some, this will materialise as slightly adjusted start/finish times, compressed hours and so on. ONS data shows that more than a quarter of UK employees work part time for example. But working hours are actually just the tip of the iceberg, and far from the only reason why the traditional 9-5 is dead. Parental commitments are not the only driver either. The hunger for flexibility now manifests itself in so many different ways, and for very varied reasons.

What’s whetting the flexible working appetite?

Of course, the childcare juggle is far easier to balance if flexible working requests are accommodated, whether in a formalised or relaxed manner. Yet this doesn’t mean that it is only mums and dads expressing their appetite for ‘different’.

What about workers’ desire for general convenience, to avoid the joys of commuting? Rail troubles in 2018 will have undoubtedly compounded this demand.

What about their yearning to free up time to accommodate something else that is important to them, whether it’s baking or riding a horse? What if they have side projects they’d like to get off the ground, whether for additional income or merely personal fulfilment?

What about flexibility being the only way to achieve the holy grail – a work-life balance?

In October 2018, research findings from Timewise reported that 63% of full-time UK employees work flexibly. By the end of 2019, it will probably be nearer to 70%.

Ditching the 9-5

Fluid working hours are an obvious way for businesses to accommodate flexible working requests and – given employee engagement tops the polls as the biggest factor concerning HR professionals in 2019– organisations would be well-advised to oblige, if they can. Flexibility can also aid recruitment and retention, reduce absence and attrition, boost morale and enhance productivity. It can be helpful for companies too, particularly if clients impose non-9-5 requirements on the business. But if these multi-faceted benefits are seen as a consequence of simple adjustments to hours, why stop there?

For too long the debate surrounding flexible working has focused on the ‘why’ – in other words, the reasons that flexibility is sought. But surely there is far more value in conversations that explore ‘how’ it is made possible.

Numerous studies have found that millennials prefer to spend their money on experiences, rather than things, for instance – they love to travel. So, why not consider sabbaticals – for employees of all ages, it is important to add. In many instances it is possible to hire interims or pool resources, then re-integrate them when they return. Surely this is better than losing them altogether, if they’re an asset to the team?

It could even be argued that – if necessary – they could continue to work for the company during their trip, just from a different location. An article in The Telegraph last Autumn cited the director of a research company who works remotely from her French townhouse, travelling to see her London-based team only once a month. So, given the advancements in technology, why shouldn’t this be a possibility? And why shouldn’t employees, at every level, be confident enough to strive for a better life?

The role of the gig economy

There is even a strand of thought that the gig economy could have a positive influence on this whole debate. To date, this labour model has – understandably – attracted great criticism, particularly because it seems that individuals’ rights have been exploited. For example, the results of the Aslam v Uber BV, Pimlico Plumbers v Gary Smith, and The Sash Window Workshop and another v King cases have been widely publicised, and now all eyes are on what organisations’ liabilities will be, with regards to things like back pay.

In some respects, negativity towards the gig economy is justified, especially if companies have leveraged it as an opportunity to pay the minimum wage or strip people of the benefits they were rightfully entitled to. But can’t it be argued that it is the employer at fault in such a scenario, not the gig economy itself? Because dig a little deeper, and it becomes clear that paying workers for every ‘gig’ that they do, sometimes actually suits them, not just the business.

If an individual is hired as an independent contractor or freelancer – instead of being a full-time employee – it may afford them a level of flexibility they would otherwise struggle to achieve. Many nurses are now choosing to work for the NHS on a locum basis for instance. Designers are delivering their services on specific projects, before they use their creativity elsewhere. In truth, the examples are endless.

So, providing the gig economy empowers people to choose when and where they work, or how they use their skills, its growing prevalence in the world of work should not be sighed at.

These evolving trends may prove the catalyst to encouraging people to think differently about outsourcing too. Long viewed as a cost-saving movement, there are many instances where it should instead be considered a value-creating shift.

It doesn’t necessarily matter that someone is not based in the same office, or even that they don’t have the same employer name on their payslip. This arrangement can satisfy both parties.

The challenge of the future

Very few HR professionals will be turning a blind eye to the rising demand for flexibility, but this unparalleled degree of change naturally presents challenges for Human Resources and the wider business.

Ensuring there are enough people in work at any given time is undoubtedly the most obvious quandary, but it is actually also the easiest to solve, providing HR know the numbers. This will be a worrying statement for Human Resources teams that think this alone is tough enough. However, there are even bigger complexities at play.

What will flexibility ‘look like’ in your organisation? In-source vs. outsource – that is the question! Is this an attractive option for all concerned and, if so, what needs to happen to make it possible?  Is cultural change required? Will flexibility boost loyalty or present a disconnect between individuals and the businesses they work for? Is customer service in jeopardy?

The shift might be essential, but admittedly, it won’t be straightforward.

There are risks for individuals too. If the gig economy ramps up further, social change is required to ensure people – especially those who are lower-skilled and arguably more vulnerable – are not exploited. We need to also consider whether the hunger for flexibility will jeopardise skills development. For example, Charles Handy’s Shamrock model stakes a valid place for both flexible peripheral workers and contract workers employed for a specific task on an outsourced basis. So, a multi-layered world of work is not a new notion. But if, at the age of 21, an individual has not found themselves in a position to be considered a high-value core worker, they might automatically default to one of the other groups and struggle to ever emerge. This will do nothing for the battle for a mobile and equitable working population.

RIP – employment contract

So yes, the death of the 9-5 may be imminent, but the future of the employment contract is also under threat – certainly the employment contract as we know it. HR leaders need to take this seemingly static document and make it more dynamic. Could zero hours contracts be the answer? Perhaps – they support fluidity after all. But there would need to be an undeniable shift to focus on outputs, not presenteeism, in the process, so that this benefits individuals, not just businesses.

One thing is for certain. Organisations that remain entrenched in traditional-only employment models, are at risk. The future of work looks nothing like the world we know today, and for once it’s nothing to do with robots.