Over the last few years, academics and professionals alike have been documenting the gradual shift toward more flexible ways of working, in part facilitated by an evolution of Government legislation.
Research has shown that flexible work can improve staff retention, improve morale and increase productivity.
However, the definition of flexible working is broad and ill-defined and includes a vast array of working patterns from part-time hours to compressed hours, and working from home to hot-desking.
Some forms of flexibility can lead to work-intensification and may even increase levels of stress, particularly when we factor in the increased reliance on mobile technology which facilitates a variety of flexible working arrangements.
A post-crash investment
The lurch toward more flexibility in the workplace coincides with a sustained period of economic uncertainty, largely attributed to the financial crisis of 2008.
It is important to remember this context as flexible working can be initiated by employees or employers, where some employers see ways to cut costs and others see a way to retain the best staff.
So what about the industry that was blamed for causing this economic uncertainty in the first place?
The report found that part-time working was much less common in finance than across the rest of the economy.
According to some reports, the UK finance sector employs over 2m people, two thirds of whom work outside of London.
This translates as 7% of the entire UK workforce, the equivalent of one in every 14 jobs across the economy classified as within financial services. The UK is the world’s biggest exporter of financial services, and the industry provides around 12% of the country’s economic output.
Finance has been in the spotlight for a number of years now, which may be one of the reasons why some of the big names have invested a lot of time and money improving workplace relations and offering more flexible working arrangements.
To take one example, RBS champions a scheme called RBS Choice, so-called because it is designed to ‘give people more choice around how, where and when they work’.
According to the Head of RBS Choice, Tim Yendell, the scheme not only improves work-life balance for employees, it makes them more effective and productive whilst also encouraging a ‘broader’ talent base.
RBS claim the scheme ‘drives the cultural changes that underpin flexible working’, promoting better trust between employee and employer.
Meanwhile PWC say it is committed to providing employees with a ‘truly healthy work life balance’, launching PWC Lifestyle, a web-based function which reports to facilitate choice and flexibility through a range of resources.
Employees can seek support and advice on areas such as caring and parenting, work-life integration, and managing time and stress.
The inflexible workplace?
Yet whilst those in financial services report working an average of two – four hours more per week than those in other sectors of the economy, it raises the question as to whether flexible working is truly compatible with high workloads and even higher workplace expectations.
In other words, is there a culture within the finance sector which is so embedded it is resistant to developing a more flexible approach?
RBS and PWC are big global brands who have the resources to generate and promote work-life balance schemes as part of a post-crash re-branding.
But the finance sector is diverse, and there is a common misconception that when we talk about finance we are talking about work in The City.
In reality the finance sector is on our High Streets, in the commercial estates on the edge of town and tucked away in home offices. In fact, 72% of employment within finance is outside of London.
Furthermore, finance sector employees aren’t just high-flying graduates from Redbrick universities, they are the same people we find in ordinary offices across the economy and across the country.
The finance sector is diverse, and there is a common misconception that when we talk about finance we are talking about work in The City.
It is this lesser known side of the finance sector that my research is focusing upon, by speaking to employees from two different asset finance organisations in the South of England and asking them about their experiences of flexible work.
What we do know
Although the research is in the early stages, we already know a bit about who is working flexibly in the wider finance sector, even if we are still learning more about why.
In 2009 the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published a report on gender in the finance sector which still offers one of the best insights into flexible working practices in the industry, even though many of the figures used were collected prior to the financial crash.
The report found that part-time working was much less common in finance than across the rest of the economy, and, in line with other industries, was heavily stratified by gender, with 28% of women working part-time, compared to 3% of men.
Other instances of ‘family-friendly working time practices’ were on a par with other sectors and were also less gendered, e.g. flexitime is usually made available to women and men in equal measure.
This is a reminder of the variable meanings associated with the term ‘flexible work’: my research will be critical of how such a broad term is used within both government and organisational policy, and that the array of working arrangements available to employees requires a more nuanced approach.
The economy has seen many changes since the EHRC report was written and is likely to see many more.
The second part of my research will help to update this picture, providing an analysis of data collected after the financial crisis in order to find out how finance sector employees weathered the storm and how the crisis may have affected flexible working options across the sector.
To date, there is very little data available on the effect of the coalition government’s Children and Families Act 2014 which gave all employees the right to request flexible working, probably because of the informal way that many organisations have incorporated it into existing corporate policies.
As the UK enters a new era of global business and economics, financial services remain a sector worthy of study.
After all, whilst financial organisations continue to strive toward improving their reputation and working practices by incorporating more flexible ways to work, we may as well see what we can learn along the way.