Flexible working more popular than ever

The CBI/Harvey Nash employment trends survey published in June 2011 reveals an increase in flexible working practices in the UK. While most employers offer one form of flexible working, many offer three or more forms. Teleworking showed the greatest rise in popularity between 2006 and 2011. However, the government proposal to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees rather than just those with caring responsibilities has been met with mixed reactions from employers.

About the survey

In June 2011, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and recruitment specialists Harvey Nash published findings from their 14th annual survey on employment trends. The survey, which was conducted during March and April 2011, captured the responses of 335 senior executives representing UK organisations employing a total of almost 3.5 million people. The survey covers organisations of different size (Table 1) and from a range of sectors (Figure 1).

Table 1: Breakdown of responses by size of organisation

Size of organisation

Proportion of respondents (%)

1–49

14

50–249

21

250–999

25

1,000–4,999

26

5,000+

14

Source: CBI/Harvey Nash (2011)

Figure 1: Sectoral distribution of respondents

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Source: CBI/Harvey Nash (2011)

Continued rise in flexible employment

According to the survey, flexible working continues to become more common. Almost all employers (96%) offered at least one form of flexible work and 70% offered three or more types. The survey revealed that flexible working arrangements now extend far beyond provision for part-time work, which has typically been the foundation for flexible working in the UK (UK0507NU01).

Between 2006 and 2011 there was a general increase across all modes of flexible working (Table 2). Teleworking (TN0910050S) saw the greatest rise, being offered by 14% of employers in 2006 and 59% in 2011. This echoes trends in flexible working observed in the UK as well as the rest of Europe (EU1101011D). The popularity of teleworking has been boosted by improvements in information communication technologies (ICT) and its attractiveness to the smallest companies (69% offer this form of flexible working).

Table 2: Flexible working arrangements offered by employers (%)

Type of arrangement

2006

2011

Part-time

88

92

Flexitime

44

52

Term-time

21

26

Career breaks or sabbaticals

29

46

Job share

48

52

Annualised hours

13

24

Compressed hours

19

24

Teleworking

14

59

Source: CBI/Harvey Nash (2011)

The survey found a divide between public and private sector provision of flexible working arrangements. In the public sector, nearly all (97%) employers offer three or more types of flexible working arrangements compared with two-thirds (66%) of employers in the private sector. However, coverage varies across the private sector where 77% of professional service companies offer three or more types of flexible working arrangements, compared to only 54% of employers in manufacturing.

Employers’ perceptions of flexible working

In May 2011, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) launched a consultation (453Kb PDF) on the impact of extending the right to request flexible working for all employees. In the June 2011 CBI/Harvey Nash survey, employers were asked to assess whether extending the right to request flexible working to all employees was likely to have a positive, neutral or negative impact across a range of factors (Table 3).

Table 3: Expected impact of extending the right to request flexible working to all employees (%)
 

Positive impact

Neutral

Negative impact

Balance

Employee relations

45

40

15

+30

Recruitment and retention

38

56

5

+33

Productivity

17

51

32

-15

Absence rates

29

63

8

+21

Customer service

13

52

35

-22

Labour costs

14

48

38

-24

Source: Exhibit 42, CBI/Harvey Nash (2011)

On balance, UK employers are in favour of extending flexible working to all employees. Beneficial impacts are anticipated in employee relations (+30%), recruiting and retaining employees (+33%), and for helping to reduce rates of absence at work (+21%). By extending the right to flexible working, employers anticipate a negative impact on productivity (-15%), customer service (-22%) and labour costs (-24%).

When asked what impact current arrangements have on employee relations, employers indicated a highly positive impact (+70%). This contrasts with a less positive stance (+30%) towards the changes proposed in the consultation document. Employers are concerned that employee relations could be damaged by having to decide between a broader range of requests for flexible working. This could be compounded by the removal of the ability of companies to prioritise requests for flexible work made by employees with parental and caring responsibilities. Equally, there are concerns that as requests for flexible working increase, so too will the number of employers’ refusals, potentially damaging the image of flexible working schemes.

References

BIS (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (2011), Consultation on modern workplaces: Extending the right to request flexible working to all. Impact assessment (453Kb PDF), London.

CBI/Harvey Nash (2011), Navigating choppy waters: CBI/Harvey Nash employment trends survey 2011 (521Kb PDF), CBI, London.

Alex Wilson, IRRU, University of Warwick

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