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The flexibility tug of war: we are all pulling in the same direction

Flexibility has been a hot topic for both workers and employers for many years. Workers want more of it, employers tend to like things as they are. But the fight over flexibility doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game – what if both sides could win?

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Posted On Jun 27, 2023 

‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’


Of course, the pandemic broke a lot of things, and in doing so it compelled us to recast some very familiar habits. Many people were forced to start working from home – and employers were forced to make it work. Businesses implemented new patterns and ways of working; new processes, new ways to manage projects and people, and new ways to track productivity.


The COVID-19 public health emergency may have been declared officially over, but the shift to remote working it necessitated seems here to stay. Or does it? A survey of UK businesses earlier this year found that 83% of businesses want their employees to come into work at least three days a week. A US survey, meanwhile, found that one in three employers who had planned to adopt a hybrid working model have changed their mind over the past year. Business Insider has compiled a list of major firms mandating a full or partial return to the office for staff; they cite reasons including concerns over reduced productivity and the value of face-to-face collaboration. This is echoed in McKinsey research which found that top CEOs will be expecting their people back in the office and with customers. The rationale? After years of helping employees weather the pandemic, it’s time to hone in on performance again.


Most workers, however, have a different take. The UK survey found that only 20% of staff would be happy to come into the office three days a week; 41% said they didn’t want to come into the office at all. That’s quite a gap. France, however, remains reluctant to adopt remote work. A recent study shows only 29% of French workers say they work remotely at least once a week. In comparison, 51% of Germans and 50% of Italians said the same. Japan’s heavily social work culture is another exception – it had virtually no uptick in remote jobs between January 2020 and September 2021.


But what if everyone was pulling in the same direction? Some of the arguments against flexible working are based on myths – and pursuing a hybrid working model can be good news for both businesses and their staff.


Here are four reasons why being more flexible about flexible working can benefit employers:

  1. Improved productivity: A pre-pandemic Stanford University survey found that remote workers worked longer – and were more productive – than their office-based colleagues, and took fewer sick days. The UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, meanwhile, has found that 41% of employers believe home working has boosted their organization's productivity, compared with 18% who think it has had the opposite effect.
  2. Happier and healthier employees: Staff who work from home are 20% happier at work than their office-bound colleagues, according to research published in January this year. Flexible working can improve workers’ mental and physical health and wellbeing. Mental Health America asked 3,000 employees why they wanted to work flexibly; 76% cited better work-life balance, while 42% said it was to relieve the stress of their commute. That improved work-life balance leaves more time for self-care, too. More than 3 in 4 respondents said they would devote more time to health and wellness as a result.
  3. Attracting talent: In today’s tight labor market, recruiters need to offer more than a good salary. Research from the UK suggests 75% of firms now agree that giving staff flexibility over when and where they work gives them a competitive advantage when it comes to recruitment. Not only does offering remote work make recruiters more attractive to candidates, it immediately gives them a much larger talent pool in which to go fishing. Many people are immediately excluded from the workforce when required to be in the office several times per week. By offering flexibility, companies open themselves up to highly skilled workers who would otherwise find themselves restrained by care responsibilities, location or other factors – think of young parents, military spouses and people with disabilities making commuting a daily challenge, for example. It’s a fact that 80% of women look for flexibility in their next role and 92% of millennials cite flexibility as a “top priority when job hunting”.
  4. Keeping hold of talent: Businesses that allow staff to work remotely and flexibly, and which put in place the necessary technology, processes and support that goes with it, are implicitly showing that they trust their staff. It’s not always easy to let go; a 2021 survey by Ricoh found that two-thirds of employers don’t fully trust their staff to work remotely. Staff working for the remaining third of businesses, however, will feel valued by having this trust placed in them – and more loyal as a result. Our own research shows that 30% of workers describe a successful working life as having flexibility over schedule and remote working.

Businesses are still working this all out. Remote working won’t be for every company or every employee. It’s easy to see any upsides as tilted heavily in favor of staff. Companies trying to decide whether to make this change, however, might do well to ask themselves what might be in it for them. The old ways of doing things might not be completely broken –but that’s no reason not to upgrade them.


Contact an LHH expert to learn more about how to make the benefits of flexibility work for your business.