This article was first published in the March 2018 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

A quiet workplace revolution is underway. Flexible working in the UK has become as ubiquitous as the tea break used to be. 

‘Flexible workers’ usually covers those on flexitime (which allows them to choose start and finish times with an agreed number of hours); working
part-time, remotely or from home; doing shifts; on term-time contracts; or in seasonal employment.

According to research, 63% of full-time UK employees work flexibly in some way, while most of the rest (another 25%) say they want to. That sounds like game over. Flexible working is an accepted norm. 

Not quite. This flexible working has crept in under the radar and only goes so far. You can only ask for it if you are already on the payroll or if you are seen as a special case in some way. 

Fewer than one in 10 job ads are likely to offer flexibility, according to Timewise, a business specialising in flexible working, which carried out the research. 

The dearth of flexibility in recruitment offerings reflects the idea that working flexibly comes at a cost to business, whether through employees exiting the workforce altogether – usually for family/career imperatives – or moving roles to a costly part-time basis. For employees this still equates to a toxic mix of uncertain or non-existent rights bordering on exploitation, limited progression prospects and, of course, low pay.

While rigid or limited flexibility patterns of employment cost workers, predominantly women, it is clear there is also an impact on business and the wider economy. It is hard to think of an industry that doesn’t claim to be short of skills. And that is why those in work can cut a flexible deal. 

But we need flexible working to go further. The economy has a swathe of talent – including financial professionals – who would like to return to work after a prolonged career break, but can’t commit to a straight nine-to-five, 40-hour week because they are fulfilling other essential duties. 

So their choice is not to return at all or to come back into a more limited role than the one they left. Why that wasted opportunity? Because despite the prevalence of flexible working, it still carries a stigma, an aura of disapproval, especially for those entering an organisation. Part-time and flexible working still has connotations of being flaky and not committed – either to the role or the organisation. 

This attitude is magnified in some sectors – for example, professional services – which is trying hard with return-to-work programmes. However, these programmes co-exist with a culture of extreme and inflexible working practices, such as working all night to complete the audit. 

For global companies, a culture of diversity and inclusivity is increasingly seen as important in driving success. In part that means coming clean and making flexible mainstream, accepted and embedded. Flexible working needs to come out of the closet.

Peter Williams is an accountant and journalist