Flexi-phobia: why Brits are too scared to ask for flexible working

Fear factor means one in five employees dare not ask about flexible working options, despite their legal right to do so.

More than one in five (21 per cent) UK private sector employees – equivalent to 5.5 million nationally – are too afraid to discuss flexible working with their boss because they think they will say no, Aviva’s Working Lives report shows.

The findings come despite employees having the legal right to make a ‘statutory application’ to their employer to change their working pattern. Those aged 35-49 are the most likely to refrain from exercising this right despite the challenge some in this age group may face with juggling work and family life: nearly one in four (24 per cent) shy away from starting a conversation for fear of rejection.

Despite the widespread fear of asking to change their work arrangements, of those employees (54 per cent) who have specifically initiated a conversation, the vast majority (79 per cent) have had their request accepted, as almost two in three private sector businesses (64 per cent) say they already offer the opportunity for flexible working. Such findings suggest a potential disconnect between employees’ expectations of what their employers will allow, and the greater freedom that is actually available to them.

The fourth edition of Aviva’s Working Lives report [pdf] – which examines the attitudes and experiences of employers and employees on issues affecting the present and future of the UK workplace – suggests there are clear business benefits to flexible working for both employers and employees.

In fact, two in three employers (65 per cent) think the private sector workforce will work more flexibly in five years’ time and more than half (51 per cent) of all private sector employees say they already do so, either regularly or occasionally, within their role.

Improved business performance, productivity and happiness

Aviva’s research highlights clear business benefits for those employers who are willing – and able – to embrace flexible working. More than half (51 per cent) of businesses reported it increases productivity and more than two thirds (68 per cent) believe it makes their employees happier.

Flexible working also helps with retention and recruitment with two in three (63 per cent) employees admitting they are more likely to stay with an employer who offers it, and when it comes to hiring the best talent, more than one in three (36 per cent) employees identify flexible working as a deal breaker when considering a new job.

Such views chime with staff who currently adopt flexible working patterns, as almost two in five (37 per cent) cite increased happiness as one of the top three outcomes from working flexibly. One in three (34 per cent) also identify being able to more effectively manage their responsibilities outside of work as one of the top three outcomes.

Gareth Hemming, director of SME insurance at Aviva UK, says, ‘Technological innovation is presenting new ways for businesses to serve their customers and support growth objectives. It also offers the potential for businesses to evolve how they interact with customers outside of core working hours.

‘Such change means businesses may need to rethink the way their employees work and should consider the benefits flexible working could bring in meeting business goals. It can also support employees looking to manage their work-life balance better as they juggle work with busy lives, looking after family young and old, managing health or even wanting more time to pursue other interests.

‘Whilst flexible working may not be a practical option for all businesses they may still be able to introduce some degrees of flexibility – even on an ad hoc basis that may be beneficial.’

Hemming adds, ‘Flexible working patterns are becoming increasingly common and businesses are predicting this trend will grow over the next five years. Indeed many businesses have already adapted their operations – and a number have said they are considering it for the future as they recognise the benefits to both employer and employee.

‘The fact that our research suggests some employees are too afraid to ask for flexible working options suggests there is still some work to be done to create an open culture where employees can feel able to have conversations with their employers.’

Further reading on flexible working

How to implement flexible working

Companies can save substantial amounts of money through flexible working. Here Paul Statham, MD of computer company RNM Systems, offers his top tips on how to get the most out of the process.

  • Tip 1. Communicate with staff – Fundamentally, staff should be advised from the very beginning on why the company has taken this direction and how this will affect their working lives. In most cases, schemes will be better received and more successful if employees are integrated into the planning process and if key decisions are made based on their input.
  • Tip 2. Desk booking – One of the major advantages of flexible working is that you can save money by reducing office space. In order to utilise all the space you have, you will need to introduce a desk booking system. This is without doubt the most fair and organised way of putting flexible working into action. 
Desk booking software will enable your staff to connect from any location, and at any time, to reserve a desk or office space as and when they need it.
  • Tip 3. Business as usual – According to research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 68 per cent of employers reported that flexible working has had a positive impact on employee attitude and morale. Most businesses will also affirm that flexible working boosts productivity. But with staff on the road and working from home, there is a danger that communication will break down. It is essential that routine meetings take place to keep workers well informed and to provide staff with a sense of involvement, unity and teamwork.
  • Tip 4. Trial period – As with most aspects of business, it is always worth testing the water first. Most companies will trial flexi-working and hot desking for six months before rolling it out permanently.
  • Tip 5. Evaluation – An evaluation should be conducted into how the business has benefited from the scheme and staff should be invited once again to voice their opinions before making the final decision.

Owen Gough, SmallBusiness UK

Owen Gough

Owen was a reporter for Bonhill Group plc writing across the Smallbusiness.co.uk and Growthbusiness.co.uk titles before moving on to be a Digital Technology reporter for the Express.co.uk.

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Flexible Working