Future of work: Future of flexibility

Without doubt, the traditional employment relationship has changed. Whilst the Coronavirus pandemic has had a major impact, the changing nature of the employment relationship has been taking place for several years. But what does this mean for employers?

CIPD in a recent report has suggested that atypical workers could be anywhere from 18.6%  to 42.4% of the workforce (depending on how narrowly atypical working is defined). What is clear is that this momentum of change in working patterns and relationships will continue in years to come. Employers need to adapt to this change if they are to stay competitive, attractive and able to retain the best talent.

Hybrid working

It cannot have gone unnoticed that the Coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on the employment relationship and our ways of working.

For large parts of 2020 and 2021, the pandemic necessitated a massive shift to homeworking. The 2019 Annual Population Survey by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) found only around 12% of the workforce had worked from home at some point in the week prior to the survey. By April 2020, ONS were reporting that this had increased to 46.6%.

Even when the work from home guidance was lifted in 2021, the preference for homeworking remained. It is clear that the experience of the pandemic has, for many employees, changed their expectations regarding their working patterns and on the whole office-based employers have embraced this, adopting a hybrid working pattern with employees dividing their working time across home and the office where the nature of the work undertaken makes this suitable.

With an increase in hybrid working, employees and employers are increasingly looking for something different from their office environments. Collaborative spaces for meetings and colleague interaction are outweighing the need for rows of desks and more traditional office environments. This in turn is changing the nature of work undertaken in the workplace, particularly office environments, with the focus being on the more collaborative, interactive aspects of work and employee wellbeing, leaving the ‘head down’ work to be done at home.

The advancement of technology is also playing its part in changing how we work, with the ability to connect people wherever they are working, be it at home, in office or abroad. Video conferencing and virtual training have become the norm in a short space of time and such technologies will continue to develop as demand increases.

This shift in the way we work is going to continue. The UK Government’s flexible working taskforce recommended that flexible working should be the default position for all workers post-pandemic and it is currently consulting about whether to make the right to request flexible working available from the first day of work. Similarly, the Welsh Government has confirmed plans to encourage long-term remote working. The IPPR Scotland has published a report containing several recommendations aimed at the reduction of working time in Scotland including expansion of a four-day week pilot scheme. The current consultation on flexible working will relate to all UK employers. Employers who continue to adopt a more traditional working relationship are likely to find it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain employees. Employers therefore need to consider non-traditional working models where appropriate, whilst recognising that not all roles can be done flexibly.

However, care also needs to be taken when offering flexibility to ensure that expectations are clearly set, policies updated and steps taken to protect confidential and personal data, as well as implementing safeguards to protect employees physical and mental health whilst working remotely. Maintaining team collaboration, development of staff, visibility, productivity and supervision will also need to be addressed and adapted to align with the changes to the way we work.

Gig economy

Even before the pandemic hit, the so-called gig economy was growing. In 2019, it was reported that the gig economy in Britain accounted for 4.7 million workers. 
The gig economy is used to describe a prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs, although the report from the Taylor Review, published in July 2017, also used the term to refer to people using apps to sell their labour. Indeed, the gig economy is often associated with companies using new technologies to promote their businesses and is an area that will undoubtedly increase in popularity with time as mobile technology develops.

Traditional models of working do not provide the flexibility and on-demand nature however which the gig economy requires. We have therefore seen an increase in more adaptable types of work contracts or companies designating individuals as self-employed contractors with the ability to accept or reject work as they choose rather than being workers or employees in the traditional sense, with varying degrees of success.

Atypical working arrangements can have benefits including increased flexibility for both the employer and the individual, allowing individuals the freedom to access work when and where they want, something they may have otherwise been unable to do so due to the constraints of the traditional employment relationship. The CIPD’s Good Work Index has also shown that there is little difference (4%) in job satisfaction between permanent employees and non-permanent workers (this category excludes self-employed individuals).

However, atypical working is not without its challenges, in particular ensuring that individuals working in these areas are properly protected. Employers are well advised to consider whether atypical working is appropriate and consistent with the needs of the business as well as ensuring that such individuals are treated appropriately. The government has proposed various changes as a result of the Taylor Review, some of which have been implemented, such as the right for all workers to a written statement of terms on or before the first day of employment and providing agency workers with a Key Facts Page. Other developments are still awaited, including a new right for workers to request a more stable and predictable contract and banning employers from taking administrative fees or other deductions from staff tips, both of which will be covered in the Employment Bill to be published when Parliamentary time allows. As this area of the economy continues to develop, so will the legal obligations on employers and organisations will need to be mindful of these as they arise.

The way forward

Other developments that have been hitting the headlines recently include proposals to introduce a 4-day working week and a right to disconnect. These are both examples of how our experiences throughout the pandemic have re-set the requirements of the working relationship from employers and employees.

Change in employment relationships is inevitable but change also brings with it the opportunity to redesign workspaces, reset expectations, improve diversity and inclusion and embed culture. Those employers who can take advantage of these opportunities will be winners in the talent war.


This information is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. Please contact us for specific advice on your circumstances. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024.



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