Flexible working in front line roles: What is possible?

CIPD Voice On... the importance of flexible working for all and in particular what can be done to support flexibility in front-line roles. By Claire McCartney, Senior Policy Advisor - Resourcing and Inclusion, CIPD. 

Flex for all

You’d be forgiven for thinking that flexible working has now become synonymous with hybrid working. There has been a growing spotlight on this type of work throughout and beyond the pandemic and an increasing media obsession with the topic.

It’s important to recognise that hybrid does have inclusion and wellbeing advantages for employees and can help attract and retain people who otherwise might struggle to hold down employment. However, for the vast number of employees( 60%)* whose roles require them to be in the physical workspace, working from home and hybrid working is simply not an option.

That’s why at the CIPD, we have always championed a broad range of flexible working options to suit a wide range of jobs across sectors and industries and to suit different people. There is no one size fits all and organisations need to pilot and try out different ways of working to see what best suits the needs of their context and people. Not everyone will be able to benefit from the same type of flexibility but it is important to have parity of opportunity across roles.

For the last couple of years, we have campaigned through our #FlexFrom1st work to make the right to request flexible working a day one right rather than after 26 weeks of employment. The rationale behind that has been to broaden out opportunities and fairness for all employees and we are delighted that the UK Government have announced they intend to bring forward secondary legislation to do just that.

What more can be done to support front-line flex?

It’s hard to disagree that flexible working is more challenging in front-line industries and roles, particularly those which require 24/7 service or care. But, we are starting to see more and more examples of organisations in these sectors innovating and experimenting when it comes to flexible arrangements and new ways of working.

And there is a strong impetus for them to do so – with significant skills shortages across many sectors such as hospitality, retail, manufacturing, construction health and social care and employees increasingly looking for flexibility and a better work-life balance.

We’ve previously gathered insights from sectors that find it more challenging to support flexible working and were impressed with the practices being trialled to help people have greater control of their work and lives. Timewise have also developed extensive research and pilots into flexibility in frontline sectors and even found that financial savings can soon recoup the costs of switching to flexible patterns of work.

In fact, if we could ask the UK Government to do one thing in this area we would like them to develop a challenge fund for businesses in frontline sectors to trial and track progress around flexible ways of working and the impact on business and employee metrics.

Examples of frontline flexibility

While your approach to flexible working will need to closely align with your specific work context, we’ve got a few examples of frontline flexibility to stimulate ideas and different ways of doing things:

Team-managed flexible working schedules in construction

A construction company uses a flexible working rota within a project team (16 team members): each week, one member of the project team takes ownership of the weekly rota and team members pick a morning when they can come in late or an afternoon when they leave early (flexitime).

Flexible bank of nurses and retire and return in the NHS

An NHS trust operates an internal flexible ‘bank’ for nurses. People who do not want a substantive contract, want to choose when they work, or want to be paid weekly instead of monthly, can choose to work as part of the ‘bank’. These people are not contracted for particular shifts, they just work when they can work and when the work is available.

The NHS trust also has a ‘retire and return’ programme, so that people who are retiring are offered to come back in flexible roles: 'even if it is just one day per week or in a teaching role because they don’t want to be on the wards. It is a matter of looking at what someone wants and seeing what role fits with that'.

Flex in hours worked in manufacturing

In some business areas, there are quite unique flexible working arrangements available. For example, in a manufacturing organisation, employees are able to:

  1. work overtime that can later be taken off in lieu;
  2. work at weekends to fulfil their weekly hours if needed; and
  3. request night shift work.

Split shifts and job shares in customer-facing roles

In a car rental organisation, branches and depots are encouraged to be creative when it comes to flexible working, for example, implementing split shift options and job shares. Some branches have deliberately extended their hours to enable more shift working, thereby creating a win-win for both employees and customers.

Flexible fortnight pilot

One organisation introduced ‘Flexible fortnight’, an initiative which aimed to encourage employees to trial their ideal flexible working arrangement, based on four options: non-standard start and end times; working from home; reduced working hours; and working from another location. Following the initiative, employees were able to make formal flexible working requests if they wished to do so and data collected from the pilot was shared for future learning.

A multi-skilled team to enable flexibility

A manufacturing organisation found that having a team of multi-skilled workers within the department meant flexible working could be accommodated more easily because employees could be flexible according to the business needs and skills required. The organisation aims to develop skills in employees who are on formal flexible working arrangements, so that they are able to work in a range of roles, making it easier to be flexible.

Greater notice and control over shifts in retail

A retail organisation trialled providing advance notice of shifts, giving more workers a stable core schedule and introducing a mobile app where workers could swap shifts without supervisor sign-off.  Sales in stores with more stable scheduling increased as did labour productivity.

Share what works for you…

We’d love to hear from you if you are a front-line sector organisation and have already put in place effective flexible working or plan to experiment in the future. Please comment below!

* The latest figures show 40% of people worked from home or hybrid in Jan-Feb 2023 suggesting that for the majority (60%), work takes place in person. https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/articles/characteristicsofhomeworkersgreatbritain/september2022tojanuary2023

Thank you for your comments. There may be a short delay in this going live on the blog page as we moderate the comments added to our blogs.

Parents Comment
  • Most of our workforce work onsite in nature conservation roles (i.e. our version of 'front line' roles. I've been worried for a long time about how to offer more flexibility for them because the common thinking is that it isn't possible.  Therefore this article is so welcome and very helpful - thank you!

No Data