Flexible working – the future of work?

The ability to work flexibly is becoming an increasingly important part of modern working life, especially for older workers.

Altering working patterns to meet personal commitments is, for many, essential to remaining in employment. This is especially true for those with family and caring responsibilities but still need to earn the wages from a full time job, or those who wish to wind down their careers.

And there are countless other examples of circumstances where individuals aged 50+ can benefit from altered working patterns.

So what actually is flexible working?

We would consider it to be any arrangement where the worker and their employer have agreed to a working pattern which is differentiated from the norm for their particular role. For example this could include:

  • Home working / teleworking
  • Flexi-time
  • Term time working
  • Nine day fortnights / four and a half day weeks
  • Job sharing
  • Annualised hours
  • Short-time working
  • Some reduced hours working
  • Some self-employment

But there is no hard definition of arrangements that can be made between the two parties, so it is really a case of anything that has a positive outcome goes.

We’ve put together some analysis of statistics on flexible working to give a bit of a wider picture.

The following chart shows the total proportion of the workforce who use some form of flexibility in their work. It demonstrates that flexible working use rises continuously with age, with the highest rates among older workers.

Age UK analysis of the Labour Force Survey
Source: Age UK analysis of the Labour Force Survey

We also looked at the changes over time among 50+ workers. The chart below shows how use of flexible working has risen since 2005.

Age UK analysis of the Labour Force Survey
Source: Age UK analysis of the Labour Force Survey

Nonetheless, flexible working is becoming an increasingly important issue, and it is ever more important to persuade employers that offering flexible working can help their business. However, there is often a lack of recognition among employers that helping people meet personal needs and aspirations can actually help.

A significant minority, however, are already making it work for them. With an ageing workforce it will be increasingly important to offer people what they need, and flexible working can bring many benefits including:

  • Increased productivity
  • Reduced absenteeism
  • Better employee engagement
  • Improved in-work relationships
  • Better workforce morale and health
  • Retaining skilled older workers
  • Improved recruitment
  • Reputation as a ‘good’ employer

Extending the ‘right to request’

The present right to request flexible working is for parents and some carers. However, the Government has just finished consulting on extending this right to all workers. This is something Age UK strongly supports.

We believe older workers will find this helpful, either because having the legal right to do so may be empowering, or simply because it will help make employers more receptive to their personal needs.

It is, however, crucial to raise awareness of flexibility and simply make people aware that in the future an inconsiderate line manager will not be able to stop a wish for greater flexibility at least being considered.

Flexibility for employers – only

Some employers, however, use so-called flexibility for their own ends, with little regard for the impact on their employees. Age UK commissioned some research by the University of Kent which looked at older workers’ experiences. One all too common finding was employers using flexibility to benefit themselves, with little regard for their workers.

This of course means the statistics mentioned earlier should be viewed with an element of caution.

Also, flexibility often fails to help jobseekers, as few jobs are advertised with flexibility and people may feel they will be rejected should they ask. This needs to be addressed by employers and the Government.

It’s for the benefit of older workers

Overall, however, the impression was largely positive. Many older workers have had fantastic experiences of working flexibly, finding their managers to be receptive and considerate and that as a result they are able to meet their personal commitments.

So with the extension of the ‘right to request’, along with changing patterns of working and retirement and increased employer awareness of its benefits, flexible working looks set to become increasingly common.

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