If there’s one thing we learned in 2023, it’s that the traditional 9–5 is on its way out.
According to an analysis of homeworkers by the Office of National Statistics, close to half of British workers (44%) are fully remote or hybrid remote. Meanwhile, YouGov polling suggests that 63% of Brits support a four-day work week, and over 4.4 million people are able to work flexi-time hours.
But the new normal is far from formalised. With burnout affecting a fifth of UK workers and tension between return-to-office mandates and work-from-home, flexible work is still feeling growing pains. Here are nine workplace trends that are influencing its development:
- Flexible policies are becoming essential to attraction and retention
- Mental health is an HR priority
- Virtual employers are bringing back the water cooler
- The work week is shrinking
- Employees still want to work from anywhere
- Flextime is normalising
- Meetings are desyncing
- Employers are loosening the reigns on hybrid workers
- Employers will up investment in professional development
Employee engagement, mental health, and a growing nationwide skills gap are among the primary issues shaping flexible work policies in the UK right now.
1. Flexible policies are becoming essential to attraction and retention
Employers will likely feel pressure to develop formal flexible work policies in the new year, as rising employer demand and poor talent attraction pose challenges for recruiters.
According to Timewise’s Flex Jobs Index, less than a third of jobs (31%) are advertised as having flexible work options, despite a significant number of UK workers being unable to work a traditional schedule. Employers will have to develop more lenient policies to reach these talent pools.
Furthermore, employers who are not dealing with talent shortages are facing increasing internal pressure to provide greater flexibility. Half of UK workers are expected to take advantage of new flexible work rights when they become law in April.
While employers won’t be legally required to offer flexible work options, they’ll need to consider the impact retaining rigid working schedules may have on employees. Employees who are dissatisfied with their level of flexibility at work are 43% more likely to say they feel burned out at work than those who are satisfied with their level of flexibility.
2. Mental health is an HR priority
Poor mental health has become a serious problem for the UK workforce — and it’s eroding employee engagement. According to a WorkBuzz report, employee wellbeing and retention are now top priorities for 65% of employers.
For remote and hybrid organisations, one of the biggest focuses will be ensuring that employees feel connected and supported when working from home. Younger workers in particular struggle with isolation and loneliness when working from home.
Head of HR at TrunkBBI Kerrie Mooney, says that prioritising employee wellbeing is a ‘strategic imperative’ for their organisation.
TrunkBBI provides an extensive mental health assistance programme for employees, including access to live and chat-based therapy, an employee wellbeing tool kit, and additional support during challenging life events.
‘Looking after your staff’s mental help enables your people to bring their whole selves to work,’ Kerrie says.
‘In 2024, mental health will continue to be crucial given the ongoing shift in preferred remote working arrangements. You’ve got to ensure people separate work and home and don’t burn out or feel isolated.’
‘On top of this, we’re seeing people being more outspoken about mental health than ever before, and with that, there is a duty on us to listen.’
3. Virtual employers are bringing back the water cooler
A significant number of employees believe collaboration and building camaraderie are two of the main benefits of physical office spaces. For remote workers, the lack of live interaction with their colleagues can leave them feeling disconnected from both the team and their employer.
At TailoredPay, founder Daniel Kroytor uses his team’s office online platform to increase interaction and engagement.
‘By having a channel on our office online platform that is solely dedicated to chat of non-work related topics, we can increase socialisation without trying to shove a forced discussion at a preset time,’ he says.
‘In having an online chat channel, we can virtually create the office water-cooler and foster a connection between our remote employees that feels natural rather than contrived.’
4. The work week is shrinking
The four-day work week (4DWW) was one of the most talked-about topics in flexible work last year after a UK trial of the reduced working pattern suggested that it could become a norm nationwide.
According to an end-of-year report by Flexa, searches for four-day work week jobs rose by almost 70% following the trial’s completion. While the model is more popular in digital-friendly fields, such as sales, marketing, and customer service, the demand for fewer work hours is likely to persist through 2024.
Gareth Hoyle, Director at Marketing Signals, transitioned his entire team to a staggered four-day work week in May 2022, where teams alternate between working Monday to Thursday and Tuesday to Friday. He says project management and tracking performance based on output helped ensure the model’s success. The payoff was greater retention and recruitment efforts.
‘I believe that a good work/life balance is the key to a happy and healthy workforce, which leads to loyalty and ultimately helps the business grow. It also makes the company more attractive for potential future superstars, as people applying for jobs here have mentioned that the four-day week specifically attracted them to the role.’
5. Employees still want to work from anywhere
While (often unpopular) return-to-office mandates made headlines in 2023, the year saw a huge uptick in the number of work-from-anywhere (WFA) schemes — 583% over the year according to Flexa.
The number of fully remote roles has passed its peak, but tech companies and startups in particular are continuing to pursue transitions to fully remote setups.
For the time being, it looks like the future of WFA will be in roles and businesses that require less face-to-face interaction. But given its positive influence on employee well-being and productivity, employers may develop more lenient remote work policies in order to attract the best talent.
6. Flextime is normalising
Flextime, a work schedule that allows workers to choose when they start and finish work, has been growing in popularity.
According to Flexa, there was a growing preference for companies that offer employees the leeway to start work a bit earlier or later.
‘We saw 14% of candidates expressing a preference for this in November 2023, up 10% from the start of 2023,’ the report said.
Flextime may not be a top priority for all employees, but it is becoming a must-have for those with significant out-of-work commitments.
Affiliate marketing agency Silverbean offers true flexible working, with employees able to work any hours they like so they’re reasonable within team and office requirements.
‘We find that people work their best when they are able to fit everything around their own schedule. The biggest users of the flexible working policy I would say are working parents. This means that everyone can do the school run, be there for important milestones and not feel pressured by rigid working times,’ says Rachel Utting, Silverbean’s CSR and Engagement Consultant.
7. Meetings are desyncing
While most conversations about flexible work focus on when and where we work, 2024 will see more employers using flexible strategies to rethink how we’re going about specific tasks and responsibilities. At the top of the task list is our outdated approach to meetings.
On average employees spend around 18 hours a week in meetings, with more than a quarter of desk workers (27%), including more than half (55%) of executives, saying that meetings take up too much of their day.
Employees who spend more time in meetings are more likely to say they don’t have time to connect with co-workers or take breaks during the day, making them also more likely to suffer from burnout.
Amy Casciotti, VP of HR at TechSmith, says that asynchronous communication is essential for supporting worker engagement and productivity.
Following a company-wide experiment in which 300 employees were asked to have no live meetings for the month of July, Amy’s team recorded a 15% increase in perceived productivity and interest in replacing future meetings with async communication among 85% of participants.
‘Employees experienced more autonomy and proved that great work can be done anywhere, anytime. [Async communication] is particularly helpful for those in different time zones, or those who have missed a day of work and need to catch up on activities.
‘Additionally, async communications enable employees who have difficulty speaking up in meetings or need more time to think to share their thoughts and ideas, resulting in more equitable decision-making.’
8. Employers are loosening the reins on hybrid workers
Hybrid work might be here to stay, but who manages the schedules remains a point of contention between employees and employers.
According to Gallup data, hybrid workers are most productive when they can negotiate their schedules with their teams, rather than being assigned work-from-home days by a manager.
While some employers remain reluctant to give up control over office schedules, others are letting workers make their own arrangements provided they meet baseline expectations.
For Amy, successful flexibility needs balance individual preferences with what’s best for the team.
‘We implement hybrid “Flex20” where employees are expected to spend 20% of their time in the office on a weekly or monthly basis,’ she explains.
‘We’ve found that a percentage approach helps provide the most flexibility so that daily decisions about what days or times the work is done are made at the team level, as team leads are more in tune with what works best for their team than at the corporate level.
9. Employers will up investment in professional development
Given the UK’s growing skills gap, upskilling has become a priority for employers seeking to fill highly technical vacancies and remain competitive in the job market — and firms are investing in learning tools to address the mismatch of talent.
According to CIPD data, over a third of companies say that 75%+ of their workforce has recently received, and organisations like Amazon, Ericsson, and PwC are heavily investing in initiatives to build capabilities in emerging technical areas, such as AI.
This push to build key technical and transferable skills is buoying the UK’s online learning platforms market, which according to Statista is projected to grow at an annual rate of 5.47% to £575M (US$0.73B) by 2028.
As the market swells, employers will have more options to provide, train, and develop existing employees, which could help boost employee engagement.
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