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April 16, 2021

Staff want genuinely flexible working but many businesses offer ‘fake-flex’ with few benefits

As companies prepare to reopen their offices, a new report says that confusion around flexible working is hitting staff with caring responsibilities.

By Cristina Lago

Support for remote working during the pandemic has not necessarily translated into the implementation of flexible working policies among organisations, new research has found. Staff, particularly those with caring responsibilities, are more likely to be given so-called “fake-flex”, where they can work from home but aren’t able to adjust their schedules to fit around other priorities.

The report from employee engagement agency Karian and Box, and the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London surveyed 254 organisations of various sizes across different sectors in the UK and found that, although 90% of workplaces said they had increased support for home working since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, targeted measures allowing flexibility around family and life commitments were less common.

fake flex working

Confusion around flexible working is hitting workers with caring responsibilities. (Photo by Mangostar/Shutterstock)

What degree of flexibility workers should have as the world emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic is a topic being pondered by many tech leaders, with Big Tech companies all taking different approaches. Google has started reopening its offices and expects staff to return at least three days a week in September unless they apply to work from home on a more permanent basis. Amazon also expects to return to an “office-centric” culture, but Twitter has told staff they can work from home indefinitely.

Parents and carers penalised

For many businesses, what approach to flexibility they should take going forward remains an open question. “Our whole operating model is up for refresh off the back [of Covid-19],” Covéa Insurance CIO Graeme Howard told the recent Tech Monitor Live event. “We’ve been looking at how we can operate differently, how we use our offices, whether we can work in shifts and how best to support different demographics.” As the new report shows, the policies and culture put in place around flexibility can be more important than the amount of time spent at home or in the office.

The report demonstrates that those with caring responsibilities have been using annual leave and reduced working hours (and be paid pro-rata) to manage their workloads and stifled career development.

This lack of support for flexible working arrangements has impacted parents, particularly women, and carers more dramatically, leading to increased workloads as the boundaries between work and home life disappear.

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The research also found that perceptions of mental health support are weaker in organisations where there has not been a focus on accommodating different types of working. This detrimentally affects parents and carers who might need a flexible schedule, but are instead having to cope with what has been dubbed “fake flex”.

Why flexible working is not the same as work from home

“Fake-flex”, a term coined by Flex Appeal campaigners Anna Whitehouse and Matt Farquharson, is used to define home working without proper policies in places that require employees to be constantly online or available for their business. This contrasts to genuinely flexible working, which can incorporate remote working as well as allowing employees to work compressed hours or alternative shift patterns to enable a better work/family or work/personal balance.

The King’s College report warns of the challenge of the gap between support for home working and support for flexible working, particularly for parents and carers. In workplaces where there was increased support for home working but not for flexible working, the perceptions of support for parents and carers was considerably lower. In these workplaces, 77% of respondents said their organisations had not changed in support of flexi-time. Of these organisations, 34% had observed more than one in five staff taking annual leave to balance workload (compared to 22% of overall organisations in the report).

According to Jenny Hill, one of the report’s contributors from Karian and Box, there are two main reasons behind employers’ confusion between flexible working and working from home. She says flexible working and home working are not two distinct options: while home working is about place and location, flexible working is also about time, working patterns, type of contract and type of work. The majority of the workforce is not able to work from home, says Hill, as homeworking is only suitable for office-based staff or those in knowledge-intensive roles. In contrast, real flexible working has the potential to benefit a much wider workforce.

“The second reason relates to the experience of working throughout the pandemic for those who have been working from home,” continues Hill. “There is a high probability that many people have been working ‘flexibly’, especially if they have caring responsibilities.” But this reaction to an unprecedented situation is not sustainable in the long-term, Hill says. “What this probably means is that they have been flexing their working hours to meet the extraordinary demands during a time of crisis,” she adds.

Hill recommends looking beyond the enforced circumstances of the pandemic and considering flexibility in terms of the choices that employers can give to their staff to thrive and keep their jobs. It is here where HR departments can chip in by redefining what flexibility means in this context and go beyond the “survival mode” of the pandemic to “recovery and beyond”. 

What practical measures can bosses take to promote flexible working?

According to the report, organisations remain confident positive long-term changes to their working patterns will result from the pandemic.

For this to happen, changes must go beyond establishing a home working policy, although such documents are useful to provide some guidance for managers and employees, Hill says. Clear communication and engagement around those policies, along with support from the top that the policies are part of the organisation’s culture rather than just a box-ticking exercise are also essential.

When it comes to mental well-being, the research found that an organisations’ support is usually focused on resources and tools, such as mental health workshops or webinars, rather than implementing positive ways of working. One of the respondents said: “I’ve heard of lots of examples whereby organisations are doing lunchtime yoga sessions or mindfulness, but without reducing workload so people then have to work later which seems counter-productive.”

To encourage and enable flexible working, Hill recommends employers to start with the needs that are driving the desire for flexibility: “For example, looking at the needs of parents or those with caring responsibilities or needs individuals may have around managing their mental health and well-being.”

Once organisations are clear on the needs of the people they are looking to attract and retain, adds Hill, they can start looking at designing employee experiences and workplace cultures, processes and policies that encourage and allow flexibility.

As examples, Hill says that all job roles should be advertised with an option for flexible working (where possible) and performance management needs to be able to fairly be applied to different types of contracts and working arrangements: “There needs to be clear role-modelling from the top that flexibility is part of how organisations will succeed in the future, rather than being seen as a concession that needs to be overcome.”

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