We’re working more flexibly than before…right?

Joe Heywood joined NCVO as a research assistant in 2013. He analysed NCVO’s data on the size and scope of the voluntary sector in the UK. Joe has now left NCVO. These blog posts have been retained for reference.

Since 30 June, all employers must consider requests for flexible working. The narrative around flexible working suggests that it’s one of those things “we’re seeing more and more of these days”. So we’re all now changing our hours better suit our lives… aren’t we? Not really.

Not much appears to have changed in voluntary sector since 2005 (or in the public and private sectors either). There’s some evidence of a recent (modest) increase, but nothing yet to suggest that it’s lasting. Perhaps less surprisingly, I found that women use more flexible hours than men and people aged 30-40 use them more than other age groups.

I’ve looked flexible working patterns using data from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) question:

“Some people have special working hours that vary daily or weekly. In your (main) job is your agreed working arrangement…”

I’ve addressed:

  • Flexitime: involves having a set number of core hours (for example 11.00-15.00), then allowing employees to decide themselves which hours to work outside of that
  • Annualised hours: like flexitime, a core set of hours is agreed, then the rest to up to the employee – but agreed hours take place over the whole year (useful when demand is seasonal)
  • Term-time hours: most common in schools/universities, where the employer itself shuts down – but other employers offer this setup for parents who need to spend time with children when they are home from school
  • Other: includes job-sharing, four-day weeks and zero-hours contracts – the number of each of these categories are too small for the voluntary sector to be analysed individually

What the data tells us

I look at how widespread flexible working hours are already (up to January-March 2014), how different genders, age groups and sectors use them, and how they have changed over time.

Age and gender


Starting with gender, as you might expect, women are more likely to use flexible-working hours. In the voluntary sector, almost two fifths of women (37%) have some kind of arrangement, compared to less than three tenths (29%) of men. Government statistics have also shown that fathers, while less likely than mothers to request them in the first place, are twice as likely to not have them approved.

As we also expected to see, employees in their thirties (so likely to have young children) have the most flexible working hours arrangements. Each age group older than that became less inclined to use these kinds of setups.

Trends over time and by sector

Compared to the voluntary sector, employees in the public sector (which includes schools, universities etc) are much more likely to use flexible working hours and the employees in private sector are less likely (16%).

The proportion of employees who have some kind of flexible working hours arrangement followed the same trend across all three sectors since 2005.

Flexible working hit a peak in all sectors in 2009, when over a third of voluntary sector workers and almost half of employees in the public sector were using flexible hours. The increase was short-lived however: it dropped quite sharply by 2011. It seems that it is on the rise at over the past year, but the overall long-term trend is flat, with very little change since 2005. It is difficult to tell the reasons for the rise in 2009. It could be related to the wider economic crisis, or possibly a previous drive for more flexible working, but it is difficult to infer based on the evidence available to us.

I would emphasise here that there are many fewer LFS respondents working in the voluntary sector, than the public or private sectors. This often means that changes in the data can be a bit more volatile, which is why the line for the private sector is much smoother, so it is difficult to tell if the recent upturn in the voluntary sector is likely to be sustained.

Some things to think about

The narrative in favour of flexible working tells us that flexible working:

  • offers a better work-life balance for employees
  • increases productivity for employers
  • makes recruitment/retention of talent in the sector more effective.

But if it’s all so great for everyone, why hasn’t it taken off? Has granting flexible hours remained associated with a lack of commitment, while a culture of presenteeism (where being always visible in the office gains promotions) prevailed?

The data does not specify if the flexible hours arrangements involve increasing or decreasing the number of hours worked. Some arrangements suggest a reduction in hours, such as job sharing or 9 day fortnights. Others are more about when the hours take place. These arrangements may reflect fewer hours available to the employee or simply a schedule better suited to their lifestyle. Both underemployment and overemployment are features of 21st Century working patterns.

Flexible working patterns are not appropriate for everyone: some employees (and employers) find rigid and regular hours more suitable. It is not as simple as flexible working = good and nine-to-five = bad.

Will the right to request flexible working result in more of it being granted in the long term? We look forward to finding out.

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