Hybrid is not the only way: re-imagining flexible working in the NHS

Published on
3 min read

The dramatic growth in hybrid working since the start of pandemic has shifted employees’ expectations, even for those who need to travel to work every day.

The national picture

According to data published by the National Office for Statistics last month, nearly a quarter of the UK workforce is now working on a hybrid basis.  These rates vary significantly, depending on the sector and the seniority of the job, and 46% of workers still travel to work every day.

Recent TUC research reveals a similar picture but points out that while the rate of hybrid working has tripled since the start of the pandemic, there has been little if any growth in other types of flexible working.

What has changed for all workers, however, is their expectations of the workplace.  Even if they need to travel into the workplace every day, they expect to be able to take advantage of the increased flexibilities that the pandemic has generated, for example in the way meetings are organised, learning and development is delivered, and work is managed.

Challenges in the NHS

As the Future of NHS Human Resources Report pointed out in November 2021, the NHS faces particularly acute challenges in workforce recruitment, since the same demographic changes that are increasing the demands for its services are also shrinking the UK workforce. 

The Report sets this demographic challenge against its assessment of changing expectations.  People increasingly want “good work” (which it defines meaningful work where people have autonomy, feel their work makes a contribution and feel listened to) and a better work-life balance.  In its view, “these factors may become as important to individuals as levels of pay, reward and potential for career progression.”

Main lessons from hybrid working

As a result of a number of surveys and research projects, we are beginning to understand the impact of hybrid working better.  For example, research led by the University of Southampton published earlier this year tells us that there has been a “permanent mindset shift” since the start of the pandemic, and that British workers are no longer prepared to accept a daily commute into the office.

As well as the more obvious benefits derived from cutting out the daily commute, there are more indirect benefits, which could also be generated by other working arrangements, such as increased productivity, increased managerial trust and better-quality meetings.

There are also wider lessons to be learnt in terms of management and job design from some of the “social deficits” identified with hybrid working.  These include “work intensification”, more complicated communications within teams and employee fatigue, ills which are by no means confined to those working partly from home.

Reading across to the NHS

It is apparent from the NHS People Plan, published in the first year of the pandemic, that there are some interesting flexible working initiatives already taking place in the NHS.  These include the use of e-rostering to allow employees better control over their working patterns, and the developing of working carers’ passports.

While the majority of the NHS workforce will be unable to work from home part of the time, there will be some jobs where this is possible.  Some of the indirect benefits enjoyed by these workers could become paradigms of best practice in front line roles, at least for those elements of the job that do not involve face to face contact with patients.

Flexible working by default

Since the 2019 general election the Government has promised to introduce “flexible working as the default”, without defining exactly what that means.  The NHS has already gone a considerable way to making that happening, by giving all of its workforce the contractual right to request flexible working arrangements from day one of their employment, rather than having to wait six months to invoke the statutory scheme

Perhaps, however, the future lies beyond that, in extending elements of flexibility to all job roles, even if they do not fit neatly into existing categories of flexible working (eg part time, hybrid, compressed hours etc).  In that respect there is considerable scope for isolating the perceived benefits generated by hybrid working and working out which of these could be translated across the entire workforce.

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