Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

The UK's new flexible working law and why WFH is here to stay for the global workforce

The ILO says that more flexible working time arrangements can benefit economies, companies and workers, helping create a healthier work-life balance.

The ILO says that more flexible working time arrangements can benefit economies, companies and workers, helping create a healthier work-life balance. Image: Unsplash/lucabravo

Simon Torkington
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Education, Gender and Work

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  • The UK’s new employment law extends the right to request flexible work patterns.
  • A range of other countries also have flexible working laws or are looking at updating legislation.
  • The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report shows that employees place great value on flexible approaches to when and where they work.

The acronym WFH is likely to prove one of the most resilient legacies of the pandemic.

The lockdowns that forced workers into makeshift offices at home are now a thing of the past – but the changes to the way millions of people around the world work look more permanent.

In the UK, the new Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Act 2023 gives employees additional rights to request flexible work patterns. Workers will now be able to make two requests on flexible working each year, and employers must respond to them within two months. The new law removes a requirement for the employee making the request to detail how they believe a change in their working pattern would impact the organization.


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Speaking as the bill was signed into law, UK Business and Trade Minister Kevin Hollinrake gave a nod to a range of research that suggests flexible working is good for employees and for business. “Not only does flexible working help individuals fit work alongside other commitments – whether it’s the school dropoff, studying or caring for vulnerable friends and family – it’s good business sense too, helping firms to attract more talent, increase retention and improve workforce diversity,” he said.

Flexible working laws around the world

Finland passed a flexible working law as long ago as 1996. Its Working Hours Act allows employees to start or finish their day three hours outside their core working hours. Workers also have the right to choose where they work for at least 50% of the time, following an update to the act in 2020.

Portugal is also seen as a pioneer on flexible working. It has given parents of children aged up to eight the right to work from home without having to negotiate with their employer. Companies also have to pay towards expenses that homeworkers incur, such as electricity and internet bills.

China allows people to spread a fixed number of hours per day or per week across irregular times, rather than having to stick to a fixed working window, the website China Briefing says. And Japan is reported to be considering altering its position on flexible hours and the four-day week.

In the US, flexible work schedules have to be agreed between the employer and the employee, as the Fair Labor Standards Act does not address flexible work schedules.

The International Labour Organization says that more flexible working time arrangements can benefit economies, companies and workers, helping create a healthier work-life balance.

Shifting priorities in the global workforce

A 2022 global survey by KPMG looked into trends in remote working. KPMG spoke to 530 companies around the world and found that 89% had introduced a remote working strategy or were considering doing so.

The key driver for introducing remote working was requests from employees, with 25% expressing an interest in working remotely.

Figure illustrating the key driver towards remote working.
Eight reasons why companies globally are embracing flexible work patterns. Image: KPMG

Other factors influencing the shift towards flexible working include attracting and retaining talent, the need for more flexibility in running the business, cost savings and sustainability.

In the United States, more than 40% of workers are now working flexibly, according to research published in Forbes Advisor. The statistics show that 12.7% of full-time employees now work from home. An additional 28.2% work in a hybrid model, with some days at home and some in an office. The research also finds that 16% of companies operate on a fully-remote basis.

Research cited in the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2023 shows that 83% of people prioritize flexibility on the times when they work while 71% place most value on flexibility regarding where they work. Despite a push by many employers to get staff back into the office, there is still a large majority who want to work from home, at least for a significant portion of the week.

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Productivity boost from flexible work

Many workers also believe that flexible working makes them more productive. Some 43% of respondents to a survey by analysts Gartner say flexibility around working hours is the number one reason for any increases in their productivity.

Figure showing the percentage of respondents reasons for increased productivity.
Flexible working can boost productivity. Image: Gartner

Another 30% say that spending less time commuting means they get more done during the working day.

Flexible working is also a big draw for those looking for a new job, with 59% of respondents to the Gartner survey saying they would only consider jobs that allow them to work from the location of their choice. At the same time, 64% say they would be more likely to consider a role that offers flexible hours.


The workers’ wish list meets business reality

While the balance of power has tipped towards employees since the pandemic, research shows that their wishes are not always being met.

The Global Survey of Working Arrangements 2023 finds many people are only working from home for half the time they would like to.

Figure showing the average number of WFH days per week that employees desire
Some employees would like to work half of the week from home. Image: Global Survey of Working Arrangements

For the English-speaking countries surveyed, and in Latin America, employees expressed a desire to spend half the working week doing their jobs from home. But the average full-time employee in English-speaking countries is working just 1.4 days per week from home, while those in Latin America are working 0.9 days per week from home.

Figure showing the paid full days worked from home per week
Many workers are not working from home as much as they would like to. Image: Global Survey of Working Arrangements

Flexibility and equality

Greater access to flexible working could help reduce the gender gap in workforces around the world. It is expected to take 131 years to close this gap at the current rate of progress, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2023.

There is evidence that businesses are prioritizing making more female-friendly working arrangements. The Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2023 shows that 79% are prioritizing women as part of their diversity, equity and inclusion programmes.

The Good Work Framework, an initiative by the World Economic Forum, sets out a new agenda for the future of work.

Figure showing the good work framework, its objectives and goals.
The Good Work Framework delivers an agenda for the future of work. Image: World Economic Forum

The agenda has five key pillars, including providing flexible working conditions and increasing diversity, equity and inclusion. Providing flexible working arrangements for women will be an important step in enabling inclusive participation in the workforce.

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Equity, Diversity and InclusionJobs and the Future of Work
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