Managers Believe Flexible Working Increases Productivity, Says UK study

Published on
11/01/2023 05:07 PM
Flexible working

A recent UK study has found that managers now believe flexible working can increase productivity, leading some experts to suggest that a flexible work culture could soon transform the enterprise. 

The study, authored by Holly Birkett at Birmingham Business School and Sarah Forbes at the University of York, found that 76 per cent of managers across the UK see flexible working as a way to directly increase productivity, while 62.8 per cent agreed it could increase employee motivation. 

It also revealed that 69.3 per cent of managers did not expect employees to be back in the office for more than four days a week, up from 59 per cent in 2021, with 20.4 per cent of managers saying they only required employees in the office for one day a week. 

“Managers are generally much more positive about flexible working than pre-pandemic and believe their organisations are more likely to support flexible working requests in this future,” Birkett and Forbes explained. 

“This change is likely to be particularly helpful for women, who have suffered from a lack of good quality well-paid flexible working over the years,” they added. 

The authors noted that managers were largely positive about forms of flexibility – in particular flexitime and home working – which were normalised during the pandemic, whilst other forms, such as job shares, part-time work and compressed hours, remained unpopular. 

To unify managers’ perceptions of all forms of flexible work, the study noted that enterprises must promote all types of flexible work and alter performance evaluation to “break down the flexible working stigma” that reigned in the pre-pandemic enterprise landscape. 

“Managers have become much more positive about flexible working as a result of COVID-19, but they are still more likely to support flexitime and home-working than other types of flexible working, such as part-time and job shares, which are more likely to be used by women,” Birkett explained. 

The right to flexible working

The survey comes just over a month after the UK government published its response to its 2021 consultation on workplace flexibility, which included making flexible working the default for employees in a prosed Employment Relations Bill. 

The Bill included proposals to make flexible working a day-one right and give employees more influence on when, where and how they work through legislation – meaning that employees will no longer need 26 weeks of continuous employment to request flexible working. 

Referencing this proposed bill, Birkett noted: “it is a positive step that the government is moving toward making the right to request flexible working a day-one right but it is also imperative that as a society we ensure that flexible working is more freely accessible, including job shares and part-time working and across more industries,” 

Birkett and Forbes also put forward a series of recommendations for businesses and policymakers to follow if they wish to fully entrench flexible working into their business practices. 

Recommendations included reviewing flexibility policies so they are not gendered, and paying close attention to employment legislation to ensure policies are legally sustainable for the post-pandemic enterprise landscape. 

“We need to ensure that flexible working is properly resourced and managed within organisations, with appropriate inclusive communications and performance management systems in order to see the full benefits of this evolution in working practice,” the survey co-authors explained. 

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The reversal of pandemic trends 

Despite the report highlighting managers’ widespread preference for many forms of flexible working, it also suggested managers’ predisposition to flexibility may disappear as the pandemic's influence on the workplace fades.

In 2021, just 35.2 per cent of managers saw long hours as a requirement to progress in an organisation, a steep fall from 43.4 per cent before the pandemic. 

But as of 2023, the figure has risen to 41.9 per cent, suggesting that there may be a reversal of the trend underway in the coming years. 

“While presenteeism seems to be reducing since COVID-19 there are signs we are moving back towards a traditional long-hours working culture,” Birkett and Forbes explain. 

Regardless, the authors remained adamant that flexibility for workers was here to stay, but highlighted that it will be more accessible for professionals and office workers.