Adaptive Working: Five Dimensions for success in Flexible Working arrangements

Three part article: Part One


The Problem: How can line managers develop

a consistent approach in a world of flexible work?


Line managers either love it or hate it. Some believe that allowing employees to work flexibly gives them access to the best talent – those who feel highly engaged, and go the extra mile because of it.  Others look around the canteen on Friday lunchtime, see a few gaps, and say, “My workers are skiving at home today!” So how do you achieve a fair and consistent approach to flexible work, where both employers and employees win?


There are a number of trends emerging that have the potential to reshape the world of work as we know it, and flexible working practices that accommodate these trends will ensure that employers have access to the largest and most experienced pools of talent. This will be a differentiator as labour and consumer markets change shape. Thus, line managers can only benefit from understanding these trends, in order to embrace the real value of flexible work arrangements.


First, it’s important to know that changing customer needs and the emergence of new personal technology could spell the end of some products and even whole industries that seem indispensable today. In what the World Economic Forum (WEF) calls “The Fourth Industrial Revolution,” organizations have to become even more agile and flexible in order to react quickly to changing markets and new technological developments.

In general, we know that human labour is being displaced by automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence, but opinions differ as to what is likely: Frey & Osborne’s (2013) study found that 47% of US employment is at high risk of being automated over the next two decades, while a 2016 study of 21 OECD countries concluded that only 9% of jobs are automatable. The question is whether skills or people will be replaced. The WEF Future of Jobs report (2016), undertaken with Mercer, shows that 65% of current primary school children will work in jobs that currently do not exist.    

More recent studies show that automation will have a positive effect on productivity, outstripping the increases achieved from steam power, IT and early robotics put together. Workers will be needed alongside machines to achieve this growth, rather than be scrap-heaped as some sensationalists are claiming. But in any case, the future of work looks different – and flexible work arrangements are very much a part of that future. How much managers are involved in planning for these macro issues is questionable – so a collaborative approach will be needed.


Secondly, there are a number of traditional sectors that will need to grow to accommodate an ageing population and an ageing workforce – especially in the developed nations, and particularly in the health and care sectors. Entrepreneurship may thrive as people pursue new ventures in these fertile areas.

The demographic evidence shows us that by 2050, almost one quarter of the world’s population will be aged over 60, almost treble the mid-20th century figure. Generally, in developed economies that have access to some type of healthcare systems, people are living longer. Life expectancies at birth have increased by seven to 14 years in most countries during the last 40 years, equating to an average of one additional year for every four years.

Indeed, population ageing is set to affect all OECD countries over the coming decades. Demographic projections are uncertain, but based on middle-of-the-road assumptions, the ratio of elderly people (over 65) to those between 20 and 64 could double between now and the middle of the century.


People will work longer as they live longer – some experts predict an additional 15 years at work, on average. Motivation levels may decline, health may decline, and people will move into a transition phase somewhere between full-time work and full-time retirement, where more flexibility will enable them to stay economically active longer. This is good for the country, and good for the social wellbeing of older citizens – but overall, an ageing population brings with it some obvious challenges.


For example, as suggested above, an ageing population has intensified the need for carers. Already, one in nine people in the UK are working carers. In 20 years’ time, the number is predicted to be one in six.  Accommodating working carers with a more flexible approach to working will become more the norm, and indeed, is already reaping rewards in the way of improved productivity levels, higher engagement, higher retention levels, and real gratitude from employees who need this type of support at difficult times. Line managers will need help and training to support working carers – this is new territory for many who are unfamiliar with these issues.


But it doesn’t matter if you have a family care issue or not, because all of us need flexibility at times, to balance our lives and our work. Flexible working is now the No. 1 benefit sought by workers when applying for a new job according the 2014 study by SHRM.




Thirdly, immigration controls must also be mentioned, in terms of their impact on labour forces in the UK. A recent Mercer report entitled ‘The Emerging Workforce Crisis’ examines a number of scenarios for the UK workforce post Brexit. In the scenario entitled “The Great EU Re-Migration,” where immigrants drift back to their home countries as wages and demand for their skills rise and family ties call, there could be up to 2.5 million less people in the UK workforce by 2030.


The impact of this will hit specific sectors much harder than others, leaving some industries to weigh the difficult decisions of closing down UK operations, speeding up automation, or hiring from the under-represented sectors in the workforce, such as older workers and women. This will require a different approach to work and the workplace in order to make conditions attractive enough to recruit and retain these groups. Flexibility will be key for these groups of workers. While automation might help manual labour-intensive industries, it will not transform the care industry, or many retail and hospitality businesses where real people are needed to deliver the work.  And while offshoring may work for manufacturers or start-ups, it’s not a solution for the police force or NHS.




For employers, flexibility to accommodate older workers, working carers, returning parents and those who are retraining for a career change, will therefore need to be an everyday feature of work in the coming years to gain access to as wide a pool as possible. And almost 90% of companies agree that we will see more flexible working arrangements in the near future.


Yet, more than half of all organisations do not have a flexible working strategy or philosophy — and of those that do, only 19% have a formal written document in place. Where flexible policies do exist they are typically limited to where and when people can work, and this framework is too limited to define the full scope of future flexible working. Clearly, there is a disconnect between the importance of workplace flexibility and the way many companies handle their flexible working strategy.


This is why Mercer has developed a strategic approach to workplace flexibility that is based on a clear and structured methodology to deliver practical and repeatable results. The outcome will be a framework for controlled flexibility that enhances the employee value proposition and minimises the risk that flexibility results dissolve into chaos. We will look at this in more detail in Part Two and Part Three of this article.




Flexible working isn’t a new concept. Arguably, work existed before employment and flexible working existed before jobs. In the UK there is a vast array of ‘alternative’ working practices emphasising where and when the work is performed, and by whom: part-time working, flexitime, 9-day fortnights, shift working, annual- (and zero-) hours contracts, job sharing, unlimited paid leave, home working, commissioned outcomes, and so on. These patterns exist under a variety of alternatives to full-time employment, such as contract work, self-employment, fixed-term, and agency work, through affiliates.


These arrangements have evolved over time to suit the needs of the employer and/or employee. They have not always had lasting appeal. Flexitime was removed by many organisations as it encouraged an ‘overtime mentality’ (for additional time off) rather than a culture of flexibility. Zero hours contracts have been criticised by many as exploitative of vulnerable workers. Unlimited paid leave sounds great and modern but has been found to result in people feeling guilty for taking holiday (contrary to the usual intents).


What’s changing is the personalisation of flexibility and the broadening definition of the dimensions that affect the way we look at flexible working — to accommodate the increasingly diverse needs of workers. So, we need to be clear about what flexible working looks like when conversations take place on the subject, as employers and employees may have different perceptions. This is particularly true for individual line managers, whose practices in one office may be very different to the next, even if the same jobs are involved.


But a single universal definition of flexibility is very difficult to pin down at the macro level so it is no surprise that line managers are struggling with it.  In some geographies, flex worker is a term used to describe a freelancer or short-term contractor. In others, flex working simply means providing a corridor of adjustable start and finish times, or part-time working. In an environment where the nature of work, workers, and workplace are changing rapidly, we need to consider a range of definitions about flexible working and understand the implications for each. Flexibility is often needed to cover life events, which are often temporary, such as caring or study. In the UK, ACAS defines flexible working as a way of working which suits the employee.  But it has to work for the employer too.


The following framework illustrates a number of potential descriptions and flexible working models. It is interesting to note that as you work from left to right across these models that we begin to examine a number of job dimensions such as when you work, where you work, what type of work is done, how results are measured, and who does the work.  The table provides some insights into the key implications for each scenario:


Flexibility dimensions  – More traditional models on the left moving towards most recent approaches on the right
→ How When → Where → What → Who →
Fixed hours and place of work. Full time and part time employees, and shift working typical Start and finish times flexible around a core. Job share typical as well as part time and flexible shifts Flexibility around when and where you work, remote working typical Remote teams measured by outcomes. Automation of many tasks Elastic workforce made up mostly of freelancers and contractors, working on demand
Implications for people strategy
Traditional model

Certainty of planning for employer

Difficult to scale up or down at speed

Fixed costs

Employees now favour flexible working over a pay rise so may not be most attractive option

Unlikely to attract certain talent pools such as returning females – not best model for full employment economies

No need for remote working infrastructure

Opens up opportunities to recruit from wider talent pools

Limited opportunities to scale up or down at speed

Care needed to ensure consistency and fairness applied by managers

Need for trust and some monitoring

Remote working infrastructure requirements becomes important

Opens up opportunities to recruit from wider talent pools

Limited opportunities to scale up or down at speed

Care needed to ensure consistency and fairness applied by managers

Greater need for trust or some monitoring

Research shows leads to improved engagement and productivity

Non-traditional model but becoming more commonplace

More likely to respond quickly to scaling up or down

Greater degree of trust or measurement required

Ability to pull in resource from widest global talent pools

Essential to have best possible digital infrastructure to support working

Uber style non employment model

Now being challenged by courts as illegal (UK, US, Canada)

Cost efficiency, scaling and productivity optimised

High level of trust assumed, or high level of measurable outcomes being enforced

Little or no social protection or employee benefits for workers

Low level of job security

So if we were to summarise a working definition, ‘flexible working is more than simply offering part-time working. It needs to consider the ‘how, when, where, what, and who’ dimensions of a job’.  It’s no wonder that line managers are struggling to apply judgment consistently!

When carefully thought through, flexible working will support all employees and their life events, whether they have families or not. It needs to be fairly and consistently applied to all employees, while at the same time enabling employers to thrive as well. A flexible working policy would need to examine areas such as:  

    • Working anywhere and anytime, and how to ramp up or down
    • Contingent, freelance, and contract working
    • Career models which support employee life events such as for working carers, returning parents, higher education or retraining, working for charities, working for multiple organisations, training for sports, or overseas community work — these models could include time off in lieu, job sharing, parental leave, compressed hours
    • Upstream and downstream impacts of making a job flexible (impact on colleagues and work flow processes)
    • Reward and benefit programmes that align with the work and the worker
    • The legal implications

It is important to remember that flexibility is a two-way thing requiring trust on both sides. It is often temporary, related to life events and can often be a ‘family unit’ decision. If one partner has some flexibility, it can enable the other partner to perform other tasks. If both partners, or all family members, have some flexibility, then life and work are no longer such a juggling game.


In Part Two of this three part article, we will examine the benefits for the employer and the employee of implementing a fair and consistent flexible working approach.

Yvonne Sonsino

Yvonne Sonsino

Innovation leader @Mercer. Author of best seller #Yogini #Artist @ardingtoncrafts

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