Flexible Working: Goodbye to 9-5, Hello to the Flexible Future of Work

The 9-5 model is dead. Telling employees when, where and how to work is outdated. Today’s workforce is dynamic and diverse — they demand flexibility, choice and control. In the first of our four-part series on Office Design Trends 2018, we look at why flexible working is growing and how some businesses are handling the changes.

Today, it seems, the employee is king. Caring organisations are allowing staff to work their own hours, in remote locations and co-working spaces; some are using more freelancers. Flexible working is on the rise, and it’s getting some great results. But it’s also being heavily debated, with some high-profile, global pioneers taking a 180-degree turn on their policies.

So, how do we make sure we get it right, and how does the office need to change to accommodate activity based working?

Changing workplace dynamics

The growth in self-employment and self-start entrepreneurs has fueled gig economy. In the UK, it's more powerful than ever according to the office for natonal statistics; freelance economy grew 25% from 2001-2015 The strongest rise has been in part-time freelancers, which has almost doubled since 2001 (88%). Today, one in seven of the UK workforce is self-employed.

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Meanwhile, three out of four (77%) UK employees work in organisations that provide some kind of flexible working (the most common being home working and flexitime), according to The Flex Factor While some organisations may still be reluctant to let their staff work away from the office, the rewards, it says, include improved focus, concentration, and creativity, and better utilisation of skills, resulting in an extra five productive hours gained per week, per employee; or £4,200 per year.

The increase in self-starters and flexible workers is borne out in lower occupancy rates. Furniture provider, HermanMiller, says private offices are unoccupied a staggering 77 % of the time with workstations only occupied 40% of the time. According to five years of Rhino’s own research, workstation occupancy rates average 46%.

At the root of the trend, from the employee side, lies the pursuit of a better work-life balance. From the organisational side, it’s about boosting engagement and productivity, whilst showing they care about their employees’ wellbeing. It’s a fine line between hard performance indicators and soft caring gestures, and everybody is just trying to figure it out, with mixed results.

Based on this, we expect flexible working to be a hot topic for 2018, as businesses give more choice and control to their employees.

Agile working is empowering people to work flexibly - learn how businesses are  keeping up with this demand in our guide.

IBM's U-turn on remote working

But, some of the leaders in this field have backtracked on this already, most famously IBM, when it recalled its remote workers back to set locations in March (2017), something whichFast Company says is a “terrible idea” and one which, it adds, echoes Yahoo’s similarly unsuccessful policy U-turn four years ago.


Jeff Wellstead, a partner at management innovation consultancy, The Pioneers, says: “Flexible working has been heavily debated. It’s just one of the ways organisations are trying to throw stuff out there that says: ‘we care about you’. IBM is seen as a role model. In the end, they said they got better collaboration, creativity and results with people being in the office.”

Fast Company warns that: “In all likelihood, what happened to Yahoo will also happen to IBM: the best talent will easily find new jobs with companies that are more open to remote work. Not only do flexible work arrangements top job seekers’ lists of priorities, but making successful hires depends much more on relevant skills than on physical location.”


Mobile working at Three

For Gary Walker, head of People Digital Tools at Three, and founder of 22north, flexible and remote working is about attracting the right talent: “I want to hire people from anywhere and not be restricted to localised talent.” His small, remote 10-strong team works alongside a UK workforce of 5,000 (including 2,500 retail staff). His team members work remotely from the UK, Isle of Wight and New Zealand; everyone can travel whilst working, as some have done, basing themselves in Sweden and Pakistan at times.

It’s also about retention: “Three had a user experience researcher based at Maidenhead [our HQ]. She had to be at all the scrums, the standup meetings; she had to be in the office physically, but she was moving to Scotland. Had my team not proved the value of remote work and enabled her to work remotely, she would have had to leave Three.”

Gary has been “experimenting” with remote working since he started his role in 2014. But even he admits, there’s more work to be done: “There’s a lot of powerful stories like that but I still don't think it’s amplified enough across the whole business.”

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Also, he says, there are challenges around engagement and connectivity. “People do their best work when they’re able to organise their time to do things that add value to their personal lives (eg, picking up the kids while working from home). But remote team members can feel quite disconnected, so there’s a lot of work we need to do in the background around culture, tools and making it easier for them to deliver their best work.”

Sunday Times Top 100 case study

Marketing Sciences Unlimited, a research company in Winchester with 68 staff across three floors (including four staff from its sub-brand, Walnut Unlimited), and 70% female workforce, including directors and MD. It ranks 14 in the Sunday Times 100 Best Small Companies to Work For (50-250 staff). It has one floor entirely devoted to hot desking, with the other two set to follow suit by the end of 2017.

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The company’s HR manager, Helen Van Eeden, says the company has a ‘controlled’ approach to flexible working: “One of the directors is a dad who works flexitime, and two other directors are part time, and we always have staff studying alongside their jobs. But you can’t just rock up whenever you like in the day. Flexible working can vary from not working every day, or working every day with some days at home, to a mixture of short and long days and some working part-time. And one member of staff works remotely three weeks out of four. Anything goes, just as long as we know what it is, and it’s a routine so we can work around client demand.”

Everyone works from a laptop, they use shared Cloud drives and Skype For Business (including for calls, with headphones). The office is Wi-Fi enabled, but they’re also cabled (for confidential working). Rooms have screens, speakers, cables and Skype. “It’s perfectly set up for remote and flexible working,” adds Helen. “You can work from anywhere.”

Four generations driving the changes

The setup at Marketing Sciences is not new, but it’s becoming more widespread than even just a generation ago. Part of the reason, according to a Bentley University-commissioned survey, is that millennials (Generation Y) don’t want to be tied to a desk or job role. The 9-5 just doesn’t work for this generation, it says, with three quarters (77%) saying flexible hours would make the workplace more productive for their age, and two fifths (39%) saying remote working would make the workplace more productive. The Millennial Mind Goes To Workreport predicts that by 2025, three out of four people in the workforce will be millennials (in the US).

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What’s more, the next generation (Z, born in the late Nineties) has already started joining the workforce. Generation X (born in the Sixties and Seventies) are 10-20 years off retirement, and the Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) are approaching the end of their working life (although they appear to want to work into retirement). That means four generation in the workplace. The job for HR is more complex than ever before. 

With such a difference between attitudes and ways of working in the workplace, we expect to see businesses introducing more flexible workspace options for employees in 2018 to accommodate everyone. For HR, too, things like culture, diversity and inclusion will become hot topics for 2018.

Flexible working, flexible offices

According to the Leesman Review(a global benchmark of workplace effectiveness), just under half (43%) of workers think their workplace makes them unproductive, citing reasons like noise and a lack of variety of workspaces, such as breakout rooms, quiet areas and communal zones.

If businesses do allow their staff to decide when to work in the office, they need to make sure the office is set up for them. That means making the office space adaptable to a more mobile workforce, as well as making it a great place to work for a diverse group of people. This means they need to think about things like space, natural light, acoustics, privacy and technology, among others. 

One thing is clear, today’s workforce want the advantages of choice and control: flexible work schedules, a choice of workspaces and locations. The question is: how do we design our offices to suit this mobile workforce?

The advice from The Pioneers partner, Jeff, is simple: “It’s down to design companies to ask the questions they might have had no place to ask in the past: what sort of organisation do you want to become, what are you trying to achieve, and how do you want to be perceived by everyone? So, do the deep dive first, find out what sort of organisation you want to become. Then get the people involved who will benefit from it (your employees) and get the experts in the room. Show them that this is the art of the possible.”

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Gary, at Three, adds: “There are a lot of articles and a lot of contradiction around office space design. The bottom line: it’s about people, not about office space. If we want the best people, how do we structure our office to attract them? Let’s not just jump on collaborative spaces, more meeting rooms and gimmicky gaming areas. It should be more around asking people how they can do their jobs better, understanding what the best people look for, evaluating occupancy levels of your office space, then applying that with visionary research.”

Want to know more about agile working and how flexible workspaces can increase employee satisfaction? Learn more in our Agile workspaces special report

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