Stuart Gentle Publisher at Onrec

Flexible work practices are here to stay – now businesses need to keep up

By Richard Prime, Co-Founder and CEO of Sonovate

Over the past two years, much has been said about the “future” of work. But I think it’s fair to say that we’re no longer talking about the future – we’re looking at the here and now. Work practices have changed, and businesses now need to offer more flexible options that suit their employees’ wants.

The workplace is shifting to take action by improving work life balance, requiring businesses to use flexible and open techniques regarding working hours, location, and payment. There is an increasing demand for flexibility, and many employers have responded by offering an environment in which workers can thrive.

Flexibility in the workplace

Flexibility is now non-negotiable. When polled for Sonovate’s Future World of Work report, 53% of 18-34-year-olds wouldn’t be willing to join companies that were inflexible on working environments and conditions. Businesses that allow early-birds to start when the sun rises and night owls to work into the evening thrive because all employees are empowered to structure their hours around times that they are most productive.

Some organisations are taking this further and are trialling the four day work week. Early research suggests that this can have significant benefits both for employers and employees, though the concept needs careful planning. In Iceland the trial led to improved productivity, but businesses must be careful not to expect the same deliverables in four days as they do in five. Commentators warn that the four-day work week is not a ‘magic bullet,’ and to remember that companies operate in all sorts of different structures – some of whom the shortened work week wouldn’t fit with.[1] To encourage the wellbeing and happiness of employees, businesses need to be realistic about what can be done in four days.

Environments to support wellbeing

The location and overall environment of a workspace directly affects its employees’ productivity and wellbeing. After being at home for the best part of two years, many employees want to continue working from somewhere that suits them.

At Sonovate, we took a consultative approach with our employees, asking each team to discuss what arrangement works best for them. As a result, employees have felt bought into the process and have setup the working pattern that best suits them. This took into consideration their own work preferences, but also what is best for their teams and those that they interact with across the organisation.

This change has been felt, even in the most traditional sectors. For example, as part of a new wellbeing drive, law firm Slaughter and May is allowing dogs to be brought into the office to improve mental health, morale, and alleviate stress.

The freelance and contract worker

At the start of the pandemic, job cuts were rampant in numerous industries, with customer-facing roles hit the hardest. With a minimal number of jobs available, many turned to freelancing to supplement lost income. 34% of UK freelancers began their work in March of 2020 after being furloughed or let go.[2] Although becoming freelance came from a loss, 74% now describe themselves as feeling happier as a freelancer, with 82% planning to continue working as a freelancer post-pandemic.[3]

This change in workforce is also helpful to businesses as the use of freelance and contract workers allows them to fulfil a particular skills gap without investing in a permanent headcount.

When surveyed 74% of businesses see the benefits of freelance and contract employees, and 55% of SMEs regularly using freelance and contract workers. It is clear to see that the use of freelance and contract workers is increasing. This can be particularly beneficial when a new project or client requires a skillset that the business owner may not have in their immediate roster. Using a freelancer allows that business to build its network for later projects, all while expanding the freelancer’s clientele and CV. More than half (55%) of businesses we polled that have used freelancers are seeing a shift towards a greater proportion of their workforce being made up of freelance and contract workers. 

Payment in the new workforce

The rise of freelance workers, however, introduces a new challenge to business owners – payment. As freelance workers may get paid per project, week, or day, it is crucial that business owners pay workers what is expected and agreed upon. This is how businesses will retain their freelance talent – who will move on if payment is not delivered. 2021 brought the power back to the employee as the global talent shortage increased. To retain top talent in freelance and contract workers, businesses need to be flexible in everything but payment. 

31% of businesses admit to routinely paying freelancers late and this isn’t something they can get away with: three in five freelancers will only work with businesses that have a proven track record of payment. With the freelance talent standing up and announcing what they want, businesses need to listen. Quick and agile systems that ensure prompt payment are what businesses and freelancers need in order to succeed.

Changing business practices come with a new set of expectations. When it comes to the new way of working, the people at the heart of the business need to be acknowledged. Flexible working hours and an acceptance of remote working will lead to a business’ success and retaining of its employees. And with the number of freelance and contract workers on the rise, businesses need to be equally flexible and be able to pay their freelance workers on time. The future of work is now, and it’s time businesses’ payment processes caught up.