What is flexible working? Every flexible work arrangement, explained

What does the buzzword actually mean? We explain the types of arrangements available, as well as their pros and cons.

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Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young

The phrase ‘flexible working’ is now a staple in business glossaries – it's now very much a must-have employee benefit. But while we’ve all heard the term, what does it actually mean? The answer differs depending on who you ask.

Generally, flexible working encompasses several different working patterns that can be adapted to suit individual needs. As part of a push towards greater work-life balance, it is rapidly growing in popularity in the UK.

But while flexible working is one of the most in-demand perks for job seekers,the broadness of the term means that modern employers aren’t sure how they should, and can, position their stance in company messaging.

The guide below will clear the fog. We’ll go through most common types of, and laws on, flexible working in the UK, as well as the risks and opportunities it presents.

What is flexible working?

Loosely, flexible working refers to any predetermined arrangement that allows the employee to have more control over how long, where, when and at what time they work.

In today's work environment, the ability to prioritise personal, alongside professional, commitments has become increasingly sought after. Employers have begun embracing more niche flexible working arrangements, empowering staff to choose the package that best suits their lifestyle and / or preferred way of working.

Want to be your own boss?

For those who are looking to have full control over work-life balance, the best route could be to start your own business. Our guide to registering as a sole trader has more tips on how to get started.

7 types of flexible working arrangements

The basic principle of flexible working is that it is adaptable. Ideally, the policy will cater to the unique needs of the employee to offer them complete freedom over their work pattern.

In practice, this utopic sales pitch falls somewhat flat. Employers would understandably feel nervous about allowing staff members to turn up to work as and when they felt like it. Client relationships would be weakened – perhaps fatally – and line managers would struggle to carry out management duties should their reports go AWOL.

Instead, company owners have settled on seven policies to ring fence the flexible working policy and ensure it works for both employee and employer. We’ll go through them below.

Infographic outlining 7 flexible working arrangements: remote work, hybrid working, four-day week, flexitime, part-time, flexible office, and phased retirement

1. Remote work or telecommuting

Basics first. Remote work – where an employee works from anywhere rather than a central office – is probably the best-known arrangement.

It had a meteoric rise during the pandemic, as during lockdown, throngs of workers moved online and embraced what had once been considered a progressive and niche working model.

Office for National Statistics data suggests that around 29% of the UK working population were entirely remote in May 2023. However, the great thing about this arrangement is that your team does not have to be based in the same country to function smoothly.

Ally Fekaiki is founder of Juno, an employee benefits market. Fekaiki says that adopting a remote-first approach has allowed his 23-person team to harness expertise from Portugal, Spain, Mexico, Italy, the Netherlands, and the UK.

“Giving our staff the freedom to work from anywhere is all about keeping them happy, well and engaged,” he reveals. “It also helps with recruiting and retaining great talent.”

Fekaiki can speak from personal experience. “Moving to Barcelona from London last year vastly improved my quality of life and, as a result, my work,” he says. “This is exactly what I want for my team.”

Pros of remote working
  • Financial benefit thanks to lowered commuting costs
  • Proponents can put time spent on morning commute towards hobbies and interests
  • Companies can hire from anywhere thanks to digital nomad remote culture
Cons of remote working
  • Zero face-to-face interaction can lead to miscommunication and relationship building
  • Managers get less in-person oversight of their reports
  • Employees are responsible for energy bills. Those without a home office may struggle

Fekaiki attests to the risk of isolation caused by remote working, admitting this can make working together as a team more difficult for coworkers.

He cites open communication, enabled via team collaboration tools, as the solution. “We maintain regular catch-ups and workplace rituals. To foster a sense of connection the rest of the year, we also make sure to celebrate big and small wins, as these can slide under the radar in a remote environment; and we’re really active on Slack,” he adds.

2. Hybrid working

According to Owl Labs’ State of Hybrid Work report, 34% of employees would not accept a job offer if the new employer expected them to work in the office full-time.

Like remote workers, a hybrid working policy enables employees to do their job from a different location to the office setting. However, as a compromise, the employer is able to ask the employee to work from the office for specific days.

Most businesses have chosen to ask employees to come to work on designated ‘team’ days. That way, the difficulties of remote working (eg. isolation caused by a lack of socialising) can be avoided.

Andrew Jackson is co-founder of coaching tool, Rethinkly. Jackson says keeping people aligned is the biggest challenge faced by hybrid teams.

“Most of the time, miscommunication is the starting point”, he says. “This can be doubly hard when working in a hybrid situation where some people are face-to-face, but others are on screen and might not even have their cameras on.”

More on this: key things to consider when designing a hybrid work policy.

Pros of hybrid working
  • Choice of work location for those who might not have a home office
  • Still time for errands / work-life balance
  • Junior, or new, colleagues can benefit from in-person learnings on specific ‘team’ days
Cons of hybrid working
  • Team members might feel frustrated at being made to come in on a certain day
  • Businesses will have to rent/lease an office property to house workers
  • Reduced face-to-face interaction can lead to miscommunication and lack of team building

3. Four-day week

Earlier this year, the UK’s largest trial of the four-day week was revealed. The pilot proved so successful that most firms said they’d never go back (although several now have.)

Instantly, workers across the internet began clamouring for a piece of the pie. Startups’ own four-day week survey found that 78% of UK workers would like to see the policy implemented in their current workplace.

But while there are lots of UK companies adopting a four-day week, not all of them are doing it right. Executed properly, the four-day week should do what it says on the tin: a shortened workweek where staff members get the same pay for fewer hours worked.

Let’s say you work 40 hours a week currently. In a four-day week this would change to 32 hours spread over four days, with no reduction in salary.

For many, it seems too good to be true – which might be where the confusion is coming from. But there are still some practical limitations, as we’ve highlighted below:

Pros of a four-day week
  • Reduced operational costs (and fewer carbon emissions)
  • Happier employees owed to improved work-life balance
  • Easier time recruiting (52% of employees we surveyed said they’d quit their job to be able to work a four-day week)
Cons of a four-day week
  • Not suitable for every business model (eg. seasonal organisations)
  • Client relationships would need to be closely managed

4. Flexitime

Flexitime, as a form of flexible working, has been around for decades. Under the policy, staff must still work a particular number of hours within a workweek. That said, they can change the time they start or finish work.

This still offers workers a degree of control over their shift pattern. If you normally work 9-5, but have a doctor’s appointment at 9am, you might choose to start an hour later in order to accommodate. Any changes to schedule must first be approved by management, however.

At the more extreme end of the flexitime scale is the compressed workweek. Like the four-day week, this model allows an individual to work a traditional 35-40 hour workweek in less than five days.

Still, it is not as popular amongst staff members as it requires teams to work longer shifts, which could prove detrimental to employee health and wellbeing.

Pros of a flexitime
  • Easier and faster commuting, as teams can avoid rush hour
  • Better fit of working hours with school hours, college hours, or care arrangements
  • Employees still benefit from full pay
Cons of a flexitime
  • Not suitable for everyone (service industries could suffer from understaffing at times)
  • More advanced employee management software may be required to log timesheets
  • Managers may need to set core office hours to make meeting schedules work

5. Part-time work and job sharing

Ever heard the phrase ‘two heads is better than one’? Job sharing is where two (or more) part-time employees literally divide the responsibilities of the role between them to cover one full-time position.

Job sharing is a great option for those industries that are struggling to access talent (which, in today’s hiring crisis, is pretty much all of them).

Given the rising number of UK employees who are choosing to go part-time, such as working parents or early retirees, the perk has become more common, and will likely continue to be into 2024.

Businesses who employ job sharers can benefit from qualified, experienced talent. Meanwhile, those who don’t want to work a permanent 9-5, or can’t afford to, can still retain the level of responsibility/seniority of a full-time position. Win-win.

Pros of part-time work and job sharing
  • Reduced costs for those who have care duties, such as working parents
  • Reduced absenteeism: one employee can fill in for the other if they go on leave
Cons of part-time work and job sharing
  • Success of the role depends on compatibility of the job-sharing partners
  • Managing two employees poses supervision challenges for line managers
  • Job-sharing partners usually must share benefits, such as holiday or sick leave

6. Flexible office space

While not often discussed when it comes to flexible working, serviced offices are a much more adaptable method for running a business than renting a full-time space. That’s because coworking spaces avoid associated rental costs and business rates.

Thousands of UK SMEs have been hit hard by hiked energy prices, and many are currently operating with reduced cash flow. Serviced offices mean you don't pay utility bills and will be on a shorter contract should you run into financial difficulty.

Plus, a flexible office space means you can still provide essential services for employees such as meeting rooms and quiet space for brainstorming sessions. But you won’t have to force them into the office every day to make full use of your rent payments.

Some of the top coworking providers – even those based in expensive locations like London – offer hybrid payment tiers so you can for half-use during work months.

Pros of flexible office space
  • Look professional to clients and staff, without forking out for a monthly office lease
  • Shortened commute thanks to affordable locations in major UK cities
  • Hybrid plans mean you can still offer staff members other flexible working policies
Cons of flexible office space
  • Employee productivity might be limited by opening hours
  • Space is shared with other teams, and could fill up at peak times

7. Phased retirement and flexible retirement options

Flexible retirement, or phased retirement, refers to a flexible working arrangement where the employee (aged at least 55) is able to draw all or some of their retirement benefits even though their employment continues.

It is a good option for someone who wants to gradually decrease their work hours. Post-COVID, as swathes of older colleagues left the workforce early, it became a popular solution for those who didn’t want to say goodbye to a solid source of income just yet.

To qualify for phased retirement, employees may need to reduce their pensionable earnings by changing job roles. Some employers may therefore not be able to accommodate a phased arrangement.

Pros of phased retirement
  • Employers can hold onto qualified, experienced talent for longer
  • Will be easier to recruit older job seekers
  • Makes succession planning simpler for employers
Cons of phased retirement
  • Employees may need to reduce working hours or role responsibility, impacting output
  • Done on an individual basis, so can’t be rolled out as a perk for the entire company
  • Might need to hire another worker to plug gaps

Flexible working laws in the UK

The trend towards flexible working is not just being driven by employee desires. The change in direction is also a reaction to the government’s legal campaign to make flexible working more accessible.

In April 2023, the Flexible Working Bill came into effect. The legislation is designed to give more employees the opportunity to benefit from the improved working conditions that flexible work arrangements bring.

Under the new rules, employees can now request changes to their working hours, times, or location from day one of employment. Previously, they might have had to wait up to 26 weeks to appeal.

Employer's obligations and considerations

Among the key changes introduced by the bill, employers must now:

  • Consult with their employees before a flexible working request can be turned down
  • Allow employees to make two flexible working requests in any 12-month period
  • Respond to requests within two months (previously three)
  • Provide proper reasoning for an employee before rejecting a request

Managers also cannot demand employees to lay out how a flexible working request might impact the employer. Instead, it is up to the business owner to consider the impact.

Benefits of flexible working

If you’re still unconvinced by the information above, you might still need persuading of the advantages that flexible working brings to today’s workforces. Here’s a quick rundown of the top three:

1. Improved work-life balance

Having more time for hobbies, interest, and care responsibilities relieves stress for employees. Flexible working therefore has a positive and measurable impact on health and wellbeing. It also empowers employees to have more choice over things like when they take their bank holidays.

2. Increased productivity and job satisfaction

Trusting employees to customise their own work schedules will help them to feel more motivated and improve employee engagement. This is also a simple way to limit your staff turnover rate by ensuring staff don’t feel tempted by a flexible rival job offer.

3. More attractive proposition for job seekers

Who wouldn’t be tempted by an organisational culture where the employer cares about a person’s livelihood and stress level? Flexible working adds salt to a company’s benefits and perks provision, empowering hiring managers to attract a skilled and diverse workforce.

Conclusion

To reject flexible working in 2024 would be like protesting the invention of the wheel; it’s here, it’s a pioneer, and it’s already helping successful adopters to accelerate their growth plans.

But while the perk brings plenty of benefits (improved work-life balance, increased output, and streamlined recruitment, to name a few) don’t panic if you’ve not been able to enjoy them just yet.

As with any operational change, implementing a flexible working policy takes time. We don’t recommend that companies start immediately partnering their employees up to job share.

The above article has highlighted the pros and cons of each policy to demonstrate where a model might succeed – and where it might not be necessary.

Now is the time to test out each arrangement for its strengths and weaknesses. We recommend SMEs explore and experiment with flexible working to find the combination that offers the most productive and fulfilling environment for their employees.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Do employers have to offer flexible working?
    The government’s Flexible Working Bill came into effect in April 2023. Every UK employee now has the right to make two flexible working requests per year from day one of employment, rather than from 26 weeks as previously allowed. While the employer does not have to offer flexible working, they must respond to the staff member’s request.
  • What are the disadvantages of flexible working?
    Permitting individuals to work outside of core office hours could mean their managers have less oversight of what they are working on, which could also make it harder to respond to or prevent a drop in productivity. Working in isolation can also be detrimental to team working as communication takes place online rather than in-person.
  • What are three examples of flexible work arrangements?
    The three most common flexible working arrangements are remote working, hybrid working, and flexitime. These are all policies designed to give people more freedom over how they work, and are also easiest to implement.
Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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