UK businesses have mixed attitudes to flexible working, according to two new studies

Flexible working City of LondonThe mixed attitude of businesses towards flexible working generally – and a new tranche of UK regulation in particular – is evident in two new studies. While a Citrix survey found that under half of small and medium sized business owners support the new flexible working legislation due to come into force at the end of this month with even fewer seeing it as a positive development, another study by recruitment consultants Robert Half found that two-thirds of large financial services firms use flexible working as a way of attracting and retaining employees. According to the report, this is particularly important in The City right now because  many prospective employees are put off by the poor image of the financial services industry and so firms are keen to make themselves more attractive employers so are turning to flexible working and better workplaces to entice high-grade staff.

The new Citrix survey found that small and medium sized UK businesses have a different take on the new flexible working legislation which will grant all employees the right to request different work practices and times. Just 43 per cent of around 700 respondents (decision makers in small and medium businesses) support the legislation, and a mere  11 per cent think it will have a positive impact on their business, with 21 per cent believing it will have a negative effect. Other findings of the report include:

  • Only half (55 percent) of SME decision makers are aware of the new legislation
  • Almost half (46 percent) of SMEs have no flexible working policy in place
  • Only 43 percent of SME decision makers support the legislation, 21 percent believe it will negatively impact their business
  • Trust and perceived impact on culture are the main barriers to change, not technology
  • There are significant generational differences in attitude as SME bosses 25 to 34 are twice as likely to support the legislation as those over 55

The Department of Business Innovation and Skills estimates that in its first 10 years, the change in flexible working opportunities will bring overall economic benefits of £475 million through improved business efficiency and employee satisfaction. However, of the SMEs polled that don’t offer flexible working options at present, only one in twenty (5 percent) believe that the new legislation will have a positive impact on their business, while one in five (21 percent) believed it would in fact have a negative impact. Increased productivity is cited by the Government as a key outcome of the legislation, yet only 16 percent of those small and medium businesses that don’t offer flexible working believed this would be a benefit from the change.

When announcing the legislation changes, the Government stated they would help to remove ‘cultural assumptions’ and make workplaces fit for the 21st Century, but the data revealed a clear divide in attitude between those whose working life has been spent in the 21st Century and those whose has predominantly been in the 20th Century. SME leaders aged 25-34 were more than twice as likely to be in favour of flexible working as their older counterparts aged 55 and over (68 percent vs. 32 percent respectively), and three times as likely to see it having a positive impact on their business (21 percent vs. 7 percent).

Despite 4.2 million people now regularly working from home, it appears many small business managers retain the view that ‘those working from home are not working as hard’. Almost a quarter of those polled (23 percent) named ‘trust’ as a barrier to adoption of a more flexible approach while ‘culture change’ was cited as the second most common barrier cited (16 percent). However, rapid advances in technology and it’s ever increasing affordability mean that just over one in ten (11 percent) view this as a potential barrier.

Meanwhile the survey by Robert Half claims that The City has such a poor reputation that people are unwilling to consider it as a career choice, according to 39 percent of CFOs and COOs working in financial services . This reputation stems from factors such as the financial crisis and recent scandals, including interest rate and foreign exchange rigging. As a result, 87 percent of financial services companies are now trying to improve the way they are perceived and how they treat staff.

The executives questioned for the survey said the most common way for them to try to improve their reputation was with the introduction of flexible working, with 48 percent of all companies having done so. Among larger companies, the proportion is 64 percent. Just over a third (34 percent) let staff work remotely. Over a quarter (28 percent) of firms had also invested in improving the working environment as a way of making themselves more attractive employers.