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What is flexible working?

Every year, flexible working patterns become increasingly common  – but what does ‘flexible working’ mean, exactly? In this post, we dive into some of the different forms of flexible working you can use to help your team balance their commitments between work and home.

‘Flexible working’ is a term used to describe any working arrangement that differs from the traditional, ‘set’ working hours of 9-5, Monday to Friday. It generally means that a company has agreed to tailor their employee’s hours to accommodate an out-of-work commitment – child-care responsibilities, for example, or a course of higher education.

All UK employees have a legal right to request flexible working patterns, so if you receive a flexible working request then there are certain steps you are legally obliged to take.

But that does not mean it’s something to be worried about – flexible working patterns can benefit employers just as much as employees. Allowing your team to strike a healthy work/life balance means they stay fresh throughout the week, and helps them stay more engaged when they are in the office.

What is flexible working?

‘Flexible working’ is something of an iceberg term – 90% of its bulk is hidden under the waterline.

Flexible working can come in many, many different forms depending on how your team member would like to structure their working day, and the best arrangement will vary massively depending on the company and the employee.

Who is allowed to make a request for flexible working arrangements?

All UK employees who have been working for their employers for 26 weeks have a statutory right to request flexible working arrangements.

However, there are a couple of exclusions – those exclusions include:

  • Members of the armed forces
  • Agency workers (however, agency workers who are returning from parental leave do have the right to make a flexible working request).
  • Anyone who has asked for flexible working within the previous twelve months, whether their request was agreed to or not.
  • Employee shareholders (unless they returned from parental leave in the last 14 days).

Employers must deal with flexible working requests in a reasonable manner, or they could be taken to an employment tribunal. If you're an employer who's just received a flexible working request, you can read our guide to next steps here.

Below, we take a look at some of the many different types of flexible working that can be used, and touch on some of the scenarios they might be best suited for.

Part-time working

The easy one. Under a part-time working pattern, team members are simply contracted to work fewer days than the standard five-day working week.

Working from home, or remote working

This working pattern gives team members the opportunity to spend all or at least part of the week working from their own home. This arrangement has become increasingly common over the last few years, as the ‘information economy’ becomes more prominent and more and more companies move their work onto cloud-based systems.

It's worth being clear on the distinction – working from home (or homeworking) means doing your work from your own home. Remote working, on the other hand, generally means working from somewhere other than the office. That could mean abroad, a cafe, or anything in between.

Job sharing

Another (slightly more off the wall) option is job-sharing – where an employer allows one full-time position to be shared between two people, who can split the working time between them as they see fit.

The most high profile example of job shares has been made by Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley, who share the Green Party leadership between them.

Compressed hours

Using this arrangement, employees agree to compress their working hours into fewer days. For example, instead of working eight hours per day for five days, they could work ten hours per day, but only Monday to Thursday. This pattern can be a great solution for people who want to combine their work with another project, such as education, training or a passion project. Read more about compressed working hours by clicking the link.

Flexi-time

Flexi-time allows team members to work their agreed number of hours at times that suit them. This could be a good option for employees with child-care responsibilities who want to be able to help with the school run and make up the time by working later in the evening. Flexi-time is one of the most flexible and adaptable of the working patterns we're going to discuss, allowing employees to choose how and when they work.

Annualised hours

Under this pattern, the team member agrees to work a certain number of hours over the course of the year but they also have a lot of flexibility about when that work takes place. Sometimes the employer will set out some ‘core hours’ that they need the employee to work each week, but otherwise, they are free to work flexibly or in a situation where there is extra demand.

Staggered hours

This arrangement is a little like a flexi-time arrangement but doesn’t quite go so far – instead, it might involve the employee coming into the office an hour later than their colleagues and moving their finish time back an hour later as well.

This is a great option for parents who want to help with childcare either in the morning or the early evening. It will differ from company to company, but some employers might also allow team members to take staggered hours in term-time (so they can do the school run) and then work normally the rest of the year.

Phased retirement

Phased retirement is designed to allow team members approaching retirement age to reduce their working hours gradually, with the end objective being to transition from full-time employment to full retirement. This is a great option for people who aren’t ready to leave work for good, but would benefit from working fewer hours for health reasons.

However, it’s always worth remembering that reducing an employee’s hours will have a pro rata effect on their pay and holiday entitlement.

Unpaid leave

One relatively uncommon form of flexible working is unpaid leave (occasionally called a sabbatical). A few companies now offer the option of a sabbatical as part of their Perks and Benefits offering, where the employee can take an extended break of unpaid time off and resume their work further down the line.

What are the benefits of flexible working?

Implemented correctly, and the benefits of flexible working are hard to overstate. It doesn't make sense to expect the traditional, 9-5 and Monday-Friday working pattern to work perfectly for everyone.

When an employer and employee find a working practice that works well for both of them, then there are huge benefits for both sides. The employee could cut out time wasted on their commute, be there for their family during term-time, or find new ways of fitting their personal goals and aspirations around their work.

In return, the employer will have a more engaged, well-rested and content team who are happier in their roles and with their work-life balance.

The patterns of work that we’ve outlined above are just a few of the different ways you can accommodate your team – but there’s no need to feel limited by them.

Instead, encourage your team to make suggestions about how they would prefer to structure their working week in order to be more effective. Rather than dismiss the prospect of flexible working out of hand, ask yourself if there's any genuine business reason for not exploring it further. Even if you're unsure about it, you can always use a trial period to see how it works out before you make it a permanent change.

You might well be surprised at the advantages a little flexibility could bring.


CharlieHR builds software to help small businesses thrive. From tracking time off, running performance reviews or keeping tabs on employee engagement, Charlie provides everything you need to manage your people – all in one place.

You can try it free today by clicking here.

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