A means to many ends: experiences of flexible working

Being able to work flexibly can have a hugely positive impact on peoples’ work, and their personal lives too.

Today we’re launched our new report, A Means to Many Ends,  which looks at older workers’ experiences of flexible working, which looks at why 50+ workers want to use flexible working options, how they work in practice, and what barriers people typically face when they try to work flexibly.

What is flexible working?

Although it’s very difficult to define, it’s worth considering what we mean by flexible working. We see it as being a whole range of options, for example flexi-time, working from home or working a four-day week. But crucially it can only be considered flexible when  the individual either instigates changes or personally benefits.

The report finds that older workers want flexibility for a variety of reasons – for example, to meet caring responsibilities, wind down to retirement, or to manage a health condition.

Flexible working is usually very positive, enabling people to remain in employment and make ends meet, balancing personal commitments with work.

And all this is not to mention the benefits for their employers of retaining skilled staff, having a more committed and loyal workforce, or perhaps being able to mentor younger workers.

Despite the benefits too many employers still seem reluctant to even consider flexibility, which is bad news for both parties – to make sure that everyone who wants to work is able to do so, a culture change is needed, with renewed emphasis on the mutual benefits of flexible working.


There are, however, significant barriers to accessing flexible working.

For example, one older worker had made flexible arrangements allowing her to balance work and studies with her line manager. However, when the line manager left, the replacement was completely against the idea and cancelled the changes. This meant the employee had had to abandon her studies.

There is a clear need for improving knowledge of flexible working and how it operates among managers.

Many older workers are afraid to ask for flexible arrangements, for fear of being made top of the redundancy hit-list (and perhaps the knowledge of the difficulties of finding another job).

This shows that managers and HR departments have a big role to actively encourage employees to apply for flexible arrangements.

And it emphasises the importance of the ‘right to request’.

The ‘right to request’

The Government is set to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees (currently this is just for parents and some carers), something which Age UK fully supports.

Having  a legal back-up will help give people the confidence they need to ask about flexible working options and change the attitudes of some employers.

But we think that we could and should go even further, and that all jobs should be ‘flexible by default’ by 2020 – in practice this would mean that people could assume they can work flexibly, unless the employer justifies otherwise.

We believe this would change mindsets on both sides – and provide a much needed boost to older workers’ chances of accessing flexible working.

Read Age UK’s policy report on flexible working

Find out more about why flexible working matters to older people 

8 thoughts on “A means to many ends: experiences of flexible working”

  1. Within the driving instructor industry there is a need for flexible working hours. As a lot of the time our work is inconsistent and sporadic we have to be flexible to work when the work is there.
    We have. I pension pot like public sector workers therefore the need to carry on working past the age of 65 is more and more a possibility.
    As the job generally is low impact and not “back breaking” the ability to work part time to wind down to retirement is a definite possibility.

  2. Who can deny the benefits of home and flexible working? Certainly one cannot argue with any of the benefits put forward in this lengthy report and the positive impact upon employees. There is however one disturbing and significant aspect that has been omitted from this report and in a great number of the flexible working arrangements that have been put into practice to date.
    Why do businesses exist? I might have gained my marketing and business education back in decades past but I was taught that they existed to serve their customers. Everything I learnt in five decades of a very successful career, running and owning many businesses, underlined this simple concept. Yes, of course, the employees are critically important and I have always gone out of my way to focus on their needs. Every enlightened employer knows that satisfied employees can provide superior performance (so long as all of the other policies and influences upon them are aligned to this end).
    What happens in practice? Flexible working has been adopted in many areas of the public sector and in the professions. In the last few years I have had a great deal of contact with these sectors and the result is service that is very far from perfect for the customer (or patient or client or whatever we are referred to in these sectors). I can relate many instances for example of consultants’ medical secretaries who enjoy flexible working arrangements. And what happens in their absence during the long hours and days and holidays when they are not there to serve? Absolutely nothing. Frequently (so frequently it appears to be the norm) there is simply no alternative arrangement put into place.
    Every business enterprise, private or public, profession or otherwise, must consider the needs of its customers. Sadly, vast swathes of the public and professional sectors do not consider the needs of those they are there to serve. I know of home working schemes that work with great efficiency for their organisation and with superior effectiveness for their customers. But these are exceptions in the private sector. Recent research in the USA has shown that many home workers achieve far worse efficiency than their office based counterparts. One downside of a home-working employee is often a feeling of isolation from their colleagues and the business in general.
    Yes, let us consider flexible and home working. But let us not put any scheme into practice unless we can ensure that the service we provide to our customers is, at the very least, maintained without any inconvenience. At best a flexible or home-working scheme can be capable of enhanced efficiency and service. But too often they fail on many fronts.
    There has been criticism of the public sector being internally focussed and placing the needs of its employees first. Sadly this report does nothing to demonstrate otherwise.

  3. I recently contacted Cunard on their reservations line and spoke to an extremely efficient and knowledgable longstanding employee of the company. He told me that he had served them at sea for a number of years and then felt the need to spend more time ashore with his family. The whole experience was a pleasure and restored my faith in good old fashioned customer service.

    It wasn’t until we chatted and discovered that we had a lot in common in terms of age and career that I discovered that he was speaking to me from his home.

    That’s the kind of flexible working that results in a symbiotic relationship between employee and employer/customer.

    How many other companies could benefit if they really put their minds to it?

  4. I think that Johnny’s experience is one where flexible working is at its best. However, this current year (due to a run of bad luck) I have had to see four different consultants. The simple (!) process of booking an appointment never went smoothly with any of these as every one had a secretary who work ‘flexible hours’. When they weren’t there (on days off and on two occasions for two weeks whilst on holiday) nothing got done. Certainly the NHS could really produce symbiotic and efficient relationships were they to consider the needs of the customer / patient rather than solely the needs of the employee

  5. The right to request is an important factor in flexi time. Technology has advanced significantly to make remote working and flexible hours a reality for businesses and organizations that are opposed to the idea. The associated costs of facilitating a mobile workforce have also been reduced particularly through cloud computing technologies. I have worked for over 3 years remotely as part of a team and have never come across the major challenges that people opposed to the idea have raise for example managing staff and communication. The software tools available that make managing a team and communicating with colleagues exhaustive!

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