Is Flexible Working the New Norm?

According to the latest Charity Sector Salary Report, flexible working now ‘comes as standard’ as part of the job offer in the not-for-profit sector.

Certainly, from the candidates’ perspective, it’s an attractive benefit. So much so that it’s gone from being nice-to-have, to fully expected. And with part-time, flexible and remote working more prevalent across sectors, it’s no wonder that many candidates now see it as deal-breaker when considering their next charity job.

The assumption is that charities tend to be good about flexibility. But is this really true?

We know that one of the reasons candidates sign up with us is that they think the charity sector is more adaptable over working hours; that it will enable a better work/life balance. And it’s true that a higher than average percentage of people work part-time in the sector. Depending on which research you use, around 36% of the third sector workforce is part-time, compared to around 26% of the UK workforce overall.

But there are plenty of surveys to show that we don’t necessarily lead the way when it comes to the different types of flexible working available, not just part-time. For example, the IT/technology sector is often quoted as being top overall—and particularly good at putting the systems in place that make flexible start/end times and remote working, successful.

flexible working from home charity sector

So, are we assuming too much? Is flexibility really “the new norm” for charities?

It’s a bold statement. Especially, since the charity sector covers such a range of employers—in terms of size, wealth, management structure, mission and work culture. From one or two people working for an organisation they may have founded themselves; to huge corporations with sector-leading HR policies.

Clearly, not all charities will have the foresight or where-with-all to enable the most progressive policies.

Nevertheless, in terms of part-time employment, the charity sector is ahead of the game. It’s the high number of part-time workers that accounts for our reputation as a good place if you have, say, family commitments or health reasons why you need to work fewer hours.

Part-time hours agreed on a case by case basis

But we know too that part-time hours and other ways of accommodating people’s home-life responsibilities are often agreed on an individual basis.

So, people who’ve worked for a charity for some time are able then to negotiate a different working arrangement because their personal circumstances now make that necessary. It’s great that charities are often able to flex arrangements in this way. It shows that loyalty to an organisation is being rewarded over time and that employees are being valued.

However, what’s not so clear is whether charities are as good at pro-actively offering a range of flexible working options to new employees—as part of their benefits package. And in the age where the candidate is king, we think more charities should think about investing in this as part of their overall recruitment strategy.

flexible working case by case

The full range of flexible working options

Nowadays, there are many different ways in which an organisation can support people to work flexibly.

And the most forward-thinking organisations will look hard at how they can support and invest in their people. Then they will actively promote their policy as part of a benefits package to job seekers.

The main types of flexible working offered as part of a benefits package are:

  • Part-time work
  • Job-sharing
  • Working from home
  • Flexitime (employees can start between x and y hours)
  • Compressed hours – working the same number of hours but in a shorter time-span (ie. working a 40-hour week over four longer days)
  • Annual/annualised hours
  • Term time working
  • Voluntary reduced working time (a temporary agreement to reduce hours, and pay, for a period of time)

There are some great examples of charities pioneering new ways of flexible working.

For example, the National Trust actively promotes their policy to job seekers visiting their site with this statement:

“ We’ll do everything we can to help you find a healthy work-life balance. Our people can sometimes work compressed working weeks, flexible work patterns, from home, in job shares, part-time and on annualised hours (this means for example, working for 10 months of the year and not working the other two). Let us know how we can support you in your role and make your work-life balance the best it can be. ”

The National Trust

It shows real foresight by the National Trust. They’ve clearly worked at developing a policy for the future—one that will attract the best people and will encourage them to work hard within the framework of a healthy work/life balance.

It’s also the way things are going across all sectors—partly because since 2014 all employees in England, Scotland and Wales have had the right to request flexible working, and there’s a legal requirement on all employers to consider their application.  The situation is similar in Northern Ireland.

What the law now says about flexible working

All employees in England, Scotland and Wales, now have the legal right to request flexible working—not just parents and carers. And all employers must deal with the request in a reasonable manner. An example of this would be to

  • Assess the advantages and disadvantages of the application
  • Hold a meeting to discuss the request with the employees
  • Offer an appeal process

They can refuse an application if they’ve got what’s defined as “a good business reason for doing so”.

If an employer doesn’t handle a request in a reasonable manner, then the employee can take them to an employment tribunal.

know your rights flexible working

How the future looks: flexible working as the default for all jobs

In July this year, the Conservative MP Helen Whately introduced a flexible working bill in Parliament that calls for flexible working to be the default setting for all jobs. So far, it’s been approved for a second reading in Parliament.

If this bill becomes law, it will mean employers have to advertise all positions as suitable for flexible working as the “default setting”—unless the job falls within certain specific conditions that make flexible working not possible. So, it would put the onus on the employer to provide evidence, rather than the other way around.

It’s received a lot of support, not least because it’s seen as a way of tackling the gender pay gap at its root cause.

“ Ensuring that employers offer flexible working would open up new jobs to a whole raft of people who want to work, alongside carrying out caring responsibilities or simply achieving a better work-life balance. There are also clear benefits to employers - offering flexible working to employees creates a stronger, loyal and more diverse workforce, which pays dividends. ”

Ella Smillie, Fawcett Society

The benefits of flexible working to an employer

For charities, in particular, there’s every reason to champion flexible working in the years ahead.

Our work culture has in some ways made it a natural step. For a long time now, we’ve been known to support part-time work and people come to us because they’re rejecting the restraints of a 9-to-5 existence. They want more fulfilment at work and are prepared to accept less pay than they could achieve in the corporate sector.

Offering an enlightened flexible working policy and actively promoting it to job seekers is a way of attracting talented, dedicated people who aren’t motivated solely by top salaries. There are also numerous other benefits associated with flexible working:

  • Loyalty to the brand
  • Retention of staff – because recruiting often does come at a price
  • Productivity — statistics show that given the freedom to work in this way, people work much harder in the time they have for the job
  • Improved mental and physical health
  • Efficiency savings like fewer overheads when employees work from home or if desk space is at a premium
  • A more diverse workforce
  • Better staff morale

The key thing is to invest in it and the systems that support it. In particular, the IT systems and processes that allow people to work remotely. Things like on-line shared team calendars, Skype and video calling, software such as Slack and shared file systems like Share Point.

It’s also crucially important that flexible working opportunities are offered in a way that’s consistent and fair across the charity, so that no one area or person feels that they’re left to compensate for someone else’s work pattern.

Want to find out more about sector salaries and benefits?

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About the author

Jean Merrylees

Jean Merrylees is a freelance content writer and editor who has previously written for the BBC. Jean is now taking her first steps into the charity sector after spending some time writing for both Diabetes UK & CharityJob.