What we've learned about flexible working since the pandemic

Michalis Veliziotis and Jane Parry , Southampton Business School

Michalis Veliziotis is an Associate Professor of Human Resource Management. He is an economist who is interested in how the labour market and workplace institutions shape employees' work experiences.

Jane Parry is an Associate Professor of Work and Employment. Her research interests include changes in how work is organised and how inequalities and disadvantages operate within labour markets and organisations.

This blog was co-authored with Simone Cheng, Senior Policy Adviser at Acas.

Spring 2024 sees big changes in employment regulations for employers and employees in England, Scotland and Wales. On 6 April the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Act 2023 and other regulations came into effect. The new measures include a right to request flexible working from day one of a job. Together, these reforms aim to improve employees' access to flexible working.

In the run-up to the new legislation, and in the work climate that has evolved since the pandemic, we commissioned Southampton Business School to conduct research. This looked at how 5 case study organisations in different sectors were using flexible working. The research provides learning about what works and emerging challenges. These offer valuable insight into the good practice that can be applied in the new landscape of flexible working.

New research on current practices

Statutory requests were found to be just the tip of the iceberg, with a variety of formal and informal flexible working arrangements being used in many situations. 

Other headline findings from our research show:

Organisations used flexibility responsively and strategically

Flexible working was an everyday working practice which saw positive outcomes to retention and recruitment. For many of the employers that we spoke to, flexible working has become an important part of their business model, which they have a vested interest in managing effectively. Sectoral contexts influenced how different flexible working arrangements were used and supported by organisational policy.

Organisations started with the assumption that employees should first approach their manager

Managers were the main decision-makers around flexible working, an approach which reflected their role-specific expertise. Employers anticipated that applicants would be involved in negotiations to achieve more sustainable outcomes. The research also highlighted the need for more support for managers. It indicated some knowledge gaps around organisational policy that could lead to inconsistencies in staff accessing flexible working.

The pandemic accelerated informal flexible working

Pandemic working provided managers with deep insight into how wellbeing and in particular mental health challenges, could inform diverse working needs. Changing circumstances in employees' lives often triggered requests and required rapid decision-making. 

Good practice emerging in the post-pandemic landscape centred around:


Leaders and managers created a positive climate for change that was transparent in their approach to:

  • flexible working
  • shared learning
  • role-modelled practice

Staff development initiatives

These were initiatives, including buddying schemes, aimed at ensuring that staff using flexible working arrangements did not experience unfairness in promotion prospects. 

Initiatives also helped with identifying ways of sharing innovation.

Wellbeing initiatives

These were initiatives that connected and supported employees with varied working patterns. For example, staff networks and drop-in social events.

Hybrid working

Innovation around hybrid working, included:

  • moving toward a more outputs-based assessment of roles
  • building in learning opportunities
  • curating working patterns in ways that connected people at opportune times, for example ensuring that co-workers could be on site at the same time

A real opportunity to embed flexible working

The new legislation provides an opportunity for organisations to reflect upon how flexible working demands have changed over the past few years. It has allowed them to take a more strategic, learning-based, and collaborative approach to decision-making, that can help them manage demand inclusively and fairly.

Look out for the full publication of our case study research which will be available in the coming months.