Us and them: what does the rise of flexible working mean for the whole workforce?

In May, seventy companies in the UK embarked on the world’s biggest trial of the four-day work week. For the past five months, more than 3,300 workers have been receiving 100% of their pay, for 80% of the time, in exchange for a commitment to maintain 100% productivity. The pilot – designed to improve work-life balance – has so far been deemed a success: three weeks ago, more than three-quarters of businesses surveyed at the mid-point of the trial said they would continue after it ends.

In many ways, this move comes as no surprise. Since the pandemic, people have reassessed their relationship with work and the workplace, and flexible working has become part and parcel of office culture. But what’s particularly interesting about the four-day week pilot is the scope of companies taking part: it’s not only office-based businesses, but retailers and restaurants, too. Unlike most hybrid working models, this trial is not designed exclusively for those who work behind a desk.

Today, as working structures stabilise post-pandemic and businesses formalise their policies, leaders must consider how future working models will impact their entire organisation. This is especially true in the retail and hospitality sectors, where employee populations are divided between on-site staff and head office workers.

Clearly, hybrid working is far more difficult to achieve in front-line roles. While Zoom has given rise to virtual meetings, there is currently no equivalent in customer-facing settings (despite rapid technological advancements, we’ve not yet developed a way for bar staff to serve cocktails remotely!). Last year, it was reported that Apple was trialling a ‘Retail Flex’ programme for its shop floor associates, allowing staff to perform tech support and online sales duties from home – but there has been no update since the initial story last summer, suggesting that the tech giant abandoned the experiment.

Last year, it was reported that Apple was trialling a ‘Retail Flex’ programme for its shop floor associates.

Offering flexible hours is also not practical for retail or hospitality companies. Indeed, the closest that front-line workers have to a flexible hours option is a zero-hour contract, which offers no guarantee of work or financial security.

In this context, leaders must think carefully about what the future of work looks like in their organisation, and what having two distinctly different employee populations means. If one group can enjoy the increased freedom of hybrid and flexible working and the other can’t, will that create an ‘us and them’ culture? Will it bring up issues of fairness? Will it create a new set of operational and HR considerations? Will it make it harder to attract front-line staff?

In a poll taken by the Food Industry Association and Deloitte last year, it was found that 58% of grocery leaders favoured offering a remote work option, but also revealed 24% would require office employees to return. “It is only fair to ask office workers to come back in since their essential worker peers — who stocked shelves or operated on production lines — never really left,” the survey summary said. Indeed, in conversations with retail leaders over the last few months, the fact that shop floor employees can’t work from home is one of the top reasons cited for insisting staff regularly come into the office.

“It is only fair to ask office workers to come back, in since their essential worker peers — who stocked shelves or operated on production lines — never really left.” 

Leaders must mitigate against the emergence of a problematic ‘us and them’ culture, while also offering adequate flexibility where practical. After all, in many instances – and especially in the UK – companies that don’t offer some form of hybrid working to desk-based employees will lose out on the best talent. At the most senior level, the introduction of remote working options has allowed businesses to significantly widen the net when looking for new leaders, bringing in more diversity and new perspectives.

Providing competitive pay, benefits and development opportunities for shop-floor employees is a good place to start. In the past month or so, we’ve seen Morrisons, M&S, Lidl and Aldi increase wages and provide other means of support to their employees.

Aldi has increased wages and provided other means of support to their employees.

There are also ways to think creatively, to provide more flexibility in roles that have traditionally been on-site. Five years ago, for example, every regional or area manager spent much of their life on the road visiting sites. Covid-19 taught businesses that this isn’t always necessary. Looking ahead, there may be ways to harness technology to give front-line staff more freedom. We know from sectors like banking and healthcare that online appointments have staying power.

Developing attractive remote propositions – like virtual fitting appointments, or personal shopping experiences – could allow for home working for employees as well as providing new experiences for customers.

There is no silver bullet, but this is not a problem which can go overlooked. As the labour market becomes increasingly challenging, I’d be keen to hear from anyone who has approached this problem in a creative way. | @TheMBSGroup