How flexible working went from workplace unicorn to candidate priority

Remote and flexible working had been slowly on the rise pre-pandemic but it remained a rare perk few were able to access. Then COVID-19 hit, necessitating that workers stayed at home as companies were forced to go fully remote almost overnight. Processes that would have otherwise taken years to form and be normalised had to be put into motion immediately and a new world of work emerged.

The pandemic accelerated the flexible working trend to a degree no-one could have anticipated. Some thought it would be a temporary trend, born of necessity but that would fade away once restrictions lifted and business returned to ‘normality’. However, three years later, flexible working has evolved into the number one candidate motivator and data from Wave’s Recruitment Trends Report for 2023 has shown a steady and steep upward trajectory in jobs offering it. There has been some pushback from employers but low candidate availability combined with high candidate and employee demand for flexible working means that it’s undoubtedly a trend that’s here to stay.

The great flexibility divide

Towards the end of 2020, there was huge debate as to whether businesses would and should mandate a return to the office and that debate is ongoing, with news of large organisations backtracking on their flexible work policies still headlining in the press.

From the biggest global companies to local SMEs, businesses everywhere have been divided on what the workplace would and should look like moving forward. However, the ones that took their cues from their employees and listened to their candidates have generally found retention and recruitment less challenging, especially as the market morphed into one in which job seekers hold all the cards.

Flexible working’s upward trajectory

While some organisations are re-thinking their flexible working policies, there has been a clear increase in jobs offering flexibility. Data from the Wave Recruitment Trends Report for 20223 shows a fairly consistent upward trajectory for jobs with flexible, remote and/or working from home options from the start of 2020. Those numbers peaked in March 2022 but generally stayed far higher than at any time in 2020 or 2021 for the remainder of 2022, only dipping when all jobs in a particular month dipped. The growth is incredible: from January 2020 to its peak in March 2022, jobs advertising flexible working posted through WaveTrackR increased by around 100-fold.

Flexible working jobs growth – Recruitment Trends Report 2023

IT & Internet lead on flexible working

In terms of the industries shaping the flexible working agenda, IT & Internet rule – the Wave Recruitment Trends Report for 20223 revealed that the industry accounted for a huge 80% of all jobs advertised as flexible. Many roles in the IT & Internet sector can be worked remotely and the industry generally has the ability to offer greater flexibility than other industries. A skills shortage also means the industry needs to utilise every form of candidate attraction it can.

Education leads for part-time jobs, with a number of teachers and support staff job sharing. Catering & Hospitality posted the second highest percentage of part-time jobs – it’s an industry known for shift work and, post-pandemic, needs to hire staff in whatever capacity to fill huge numbers of vacancies.

Distribution of flexible jobs by industry – Recruitment Trends Report 2023

The flexible working conundrum of low part-time roles

While other forms of flexible working have risen, part-time roles remain low. The vast majority (95%) of jobs posted in 2022 were for full-time roles (a figure unchanged from 2021), with just 3% being daily rate jobs (a slight increase on 2021) and only 2% part-time jobs.

Given the movement for greater flexibility in all areas, including contract type, the low percentage of part-time jobs may seem surprising. However, it could be that, given the cost of living crisis, many aren’t able to reduce their hours, with some having to take on second jobs to make ends meet. A report published by insurer Royal London in September 2022 found that 5.2 million UK workers had taken on a second job, with a further 10 million considering doing so if costs continue to rise. Instead, the increase in flexible working is allowing those that might have been forced to take a part-time position to work full-time in a more flexible way, for example compressed or agile hours.

A learning curve but one with huge benefits for employers

As part of their 2022 Salary Guide, global professional recruitment firm Morgan McKinley found that 90% of global employers have changed their policies on flexible working compared to before the pandemic.

What the pandemic showed us was that it was completely possible to remain productive and connected when working remotely and flexibly. Get it right and the benefits are huge, creating happier, healthier employees that bring their best to their jobs. Not only that but it opens up the talent pool to a far broader, more diverse group of candidates.

In a recent Talent Matters podcast episode, CEO & Founder of Diversifying Group, Cynthia V Davis, explained how flexible working has hugely impacted diversity and inclusion:

How post-pandemic working practices have opened doors – Talent Matters Podcast

“Remote and hybrid working has allowed people with disabilities to do great work and be more productive. It’s opened up more talent pools as it’s brought people back into the world of work that would have otherwise considered it not effective for their lifestyle. Geographical locations need not be a barrier anymore. It’s opened up more avenues for people who for so long were excluded from the workforce.”

Cythia V Davis, CEO & Founder of Diversifying Group

Navigating this new terrain has meant each company fleshing out how it works for them, as well as ensuring that those all-important colleague connections are maintained amongst a dispersed workforce. It’s a learning curve for both employees and employers and will continue to be so for quite some time but the benefits for those that get it right are huge.

Candidate demand

Because flexible work is no longer a rarity and there is a well-known candidate shortage, employees and candidates feel empowered to ask for it or look elsewhere.

A 2021 Future Forum study found that 93% of knowledge workers globally want greater flexibility in where and when they work. Less than 20% view the office as the best environment for focused work but 80% believe the office should be used for team meetings and collaborative work.

The 2022 Future Forum Pulse study found that 65% of all workers prefer working part of their week in the office and part from home. Hybrid working and the flexibility to choose the pattern that suits each individual has become the gold standard.

Flexibility could offer a way back into the jobs market

Not only are flexible working patterns the preferred choice amongst many workers, it can make the difference between someone being able to work or not.

Parents, and especially working mothers, were particularly hard hit by the pandemic as they struggled to juggle work and caring responsibilities. Some left the workforce and haven’t returned, others feel they can’t work and manage their other responsibilities.

Juliet Turnbull, Founder and CEO of award-winning female-focused careers network and flexible working job board 2to3days, is a huge advocate for helping women to reach their full potential and continue their careers or get back to work via jobs with flexible working opportunities. She says:

“The binary world of work and home life is no longer compatible with the way we live our lives in the 21st century. It forces minority groups, especially women, out of the work force, which in turn is costing UK plc over £600 billion. However, thanks to women’s education, the advancement in technology and Covid-19, there is no justification for this outdated mode of operating to continue. If companies want to remain competitive then their workforce needs to reflect society at all levels of seniority.

The solution lies in creating a flexible working culture which enables work-life integration. Flexible working is the solution. It encourages greater collaboration and communication. It relies on self-responsibility and a switch in focus to measurable outcomes and away from office presenteeism. The result; a happier and healthier workforce. Flexible working allows for the workplace to be a level playing field enabling all people at different life stages to make a meaningful contribution to the workplace, driving innovation, productivity and profitability.”

Juliet Turnbull, Founder and CEO of 2to3days

Rising economic inactivity was a real challenge in 2022 but flexible working could tempt mothers and those with other caring responsibilities, as well as early retirees back to the workforce, plus it could help make work possible for some of the growing numbers of long-term sick. Flexible working options can allow untapped and otherwise lost talent to enter the market at a time when labour shortages are severely impacting a number of industries.    

Right to request flexible hours to become law

In a move to make work more accessible to everyone, a milestone was reached in December 2022 – the UK government announced plans that will mean millions of employees have the right to request flexible working in any of its forms (job sharing, flexitime, or working compressed, annualised or staggered hours) from day one of their employment. If an employer cannot accommodate a request to work flexibly, they will be required to discuss alternative options before they can reject the request. It’s a positive step and an indication of the direction in which we are moving.

The 4 day week: the flexible working trend of the future?

The next potential trend in flexible working is a shorter work week and 2022 became the year that everyone was talking about the 4-day week.

61 UK companies in a range of industries, totalling around 3,500 employees, took part in an international 4-day work week trial that ran from June to December. The trial was based on the 100:80:100 model, whereby employees receive 100% pay for 80% of their working hours, in exchange for a commitment to maintain 100% productivity.

Of the 61 organisations that took part, 56 said they would continue with the four-day week, either on an extended trial or permanently. The majority said productivity hadn’t suffered or had actively improved. One of the participating companies, environmental consultancy Tyler Grange, said staff were doing 2% more in four days than they did in five, the team is happier, absenteeism has reduced by two thirds and they’ve had a huge uplift in applications. One of the CEOs involved called it “a crash course in productivity improvements.”

Over the past few years, trials in a range of organisations across the globe have taken place, aiming to figure out how to make the 4-day work week work. Following similar trials in Iceland, researchers found that productivity remained the same or improved in the majority of workplaces and workers reported that their health and work-life balance had markedly improved. 86% of Iceland’s workforce have now permanently moved to shorter hours or will gain the right to.

Amongst other trials across the world, Spain is piloting a 4-day week (backed by the government) and Unilever in New Zealand is cutting hours by 20% without harming pay. With flexible working policies now increasingly commonplace, offering a shorter work week could give companies a competitive advantage in the war for talent.

Flexibility essential for both retention and recruitment

What is clear is that a large number of employees and candidates will think with their feet if flexibility in any of its forms isn’t offered.

LinkedIn data revealed that more than a third of workers would resign if they were forced back into the office full time. The aforementioned Morgan Mckinley report found that 71% of UK professionals would consider leaving an organisation if their ‘preferred flexible working options’ weren’t offered.

The use of the word ‘preferred’ highlights that there is more to the flexible working trend than providing a one size fits all policy. It needs to be tailored to the individual and their needs. Salary is still a big driver in job negotiations, especially in a time of intense economic pressures, but flexibility has become similarly key.

Economic pressures could panic employers into reducing flexibility

The concern that began to be manifested towards the end of 2022 and continues to be a concern moving forwards into 2023 is that economic pressures and uncertainty will lead to businesses rewinding to in-office mandates.

A survey released by LinkedIn in November 2022 showed that 68% of executives are considering reducing flexible working options because they are worried about productivity at a time when they’re under pressure to manage costs. And yet multiple surveys have shown that flexible work boosts productivity.

The recent Future Forum study revealed that workers with location flexibility report 4% higher productivity scores than full time office workers and those with schedule flexibility report 29% higher productivity, plus 53% greater ability to focus than those with no flexibility in their schedule.

The employer-employee disconnect

The growing disconnect between what candidates and employees want and what employers are offering seems to have intensified across 2022. Data in the LinkedIn Global Talent Trends 2022 shows a reduction in the number of remote roles advertised on the platform (to 9%), yet a rise in the number of applications (to 20%) for remote positions. LinkedIn’s UK Talent Trends Report October 2022 found that, as of August 2022, flexibility replaced compensation as the top priority for candidates searching for jobs, even with the uncertainty that characterised the market towards the end of 2022.

Flexibility is the number 1 candidate motivator in the UK – Talent Matters Podcast

The gap between supply and demand of flexible jobs has also been spotlighted by flexible working social enterprise Timewise’s Flexible Jobs Index 2022. It found that only 3 in 10 jobs offer flex, yet 9 in 10 people want flex. It’s a gap that highlights a real problem – despite an increase in jobs offering flexible working over the past three years, a huge number of people are effectively being excluded from the job market, including experienced, talented, diverse workers.

Hybrid leading the way

Despite this, hybrid working has become the most common model in industries that can accommodate it and that is likely to continue. Google is banking on it, investing in transforming its current London offices to bring it into line with the new site it’s currently constructing. All will offer greater flexibility for hybrid working, including more collaborative work spaces. Google’s UK boss Ronan Harris summarised it in a BBC article, “I think the next two [years] will be an experiment where we try and figure out what hybrid and flexible actually mean.” Flexible and remote working is a legacy of the pandemic that will far outlive it – businesses just need to work out what that means for them.

Ultimately, people have realised that a good work-life balance is key to maintaining positive mental health through whatever the world throws at us, be it a global pandemic, a war, a cost of living and energy crisis, or political chaos. Capgemini research shows that 65% of workers globally believe it’s the most important aspect of work. If employers do begin to backtrack on the flexible working models put in place since the pandemic, they may find retention and recruitment a challenge in 2023 and beyond.

Businesses across the globe, spanning all industries, are still formulating working policies that work for them and for their employees. It’s an ongoing process, involving a completely different mindset as to how we approach work. ‘Flexible working’ is one term that incorporates many different forms, whether that’s location (fully remote or hybrid) or time (including part-time, term time, job share, flexitime, compressed hours, annualised hours, and a 4-day week for the entire company, though this is not an exhaustive list). What’s undeniable is that the benefits for employer, recruiter, employee, candidate, the economy and society in general are huge.

Find this data and more

In Wave’s Recruitment Trends Report for 2023 we dig into the recruitment trends that characterised 2022, including how the job market evolved over the year.

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