Why flexible working is on the rise — and how to make it work for you

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The idea of “flexible working” encompasses all the different ways you can work which differ from the traditional 9-5 regime. Maybe you’ve heard about freelancing, the “gig economy”, working from home, zero-hour contracts and the rise of part-time working as well.

The rise of flexible working means more control for workers and a better work/life balance – and research shows it’s good for employers too. It has its downside too – self-employment and zero-hour contracts can mean less job security for workers.

We’ll take a look at the pros and cons a bit later – first, let’s take a look at the different ways you can work flexibly.

'Work is changing, with home-working, self-employment and the "gig economy" on the rise'

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Flexibility at work

Flexible employers 2015
Percentage of UK employers offering flexible working-
in 2015

In June 2014, the government gave every employee the right to ask their employer if they can work flexibly, as long as they have been with that employer for 26 weeks or more. This includes:

  • Changing your start and finish times.
  • Working part-time, or sharing your job with someone else (known as a “job share”).
  • Doing your hours over fewer days (called “compression”).
  • Flexitime, where you work a set number of weekly hours, but have some choice over when you work them.
  • Working from home.

This means you can request a certain amount of flexibility within a "normal" job. In 2015, the overwhelming majority of employers in the UK offered some kind of flexibility, and all employers have to respond to your request reasonably. But don't forget they also have to balance their needs with yours.

“Working for yourself”

You’ve probably know people who “work for themselves”, but what does it actually mean? Does it mean they pay themselves? Where does the money come from?!

Self-employment means you run your own business or sell a service to a client. For example, if you’re a web designer, you might design a website for someone – your customer or “client” – and then charge them for that.

Some self-employed people work for lots of different clients, while others work for a few, or one at a time, and may have an longer term relationship, a bit like an employee has with their employer.

One in seven UK workers was self-employed in 2014
In 2014, one in seven workers was self-

A lot of people are talking about the rise of the “gig economy”. This is where self-employed people take on small jobs – often in creative fields such as design and writing – through websites like ELance, Fiverr and Upwork. This certainly offers flexibility – but can mean uncertainty when it comes to earning a living.

They are responsible for charging the client and looking after their own taxes and finances – unlike an employee, who is paid regularly by their employer, who also sorts out their taxes for them.

According to the government, 4.5 million people were self-employed in 2014. That’s one out of every seven people in work – a record number.

Zero-hours contracts

You’ve no doubt heard a lot about zero-hour contracts recently – and not always in a positive light!

Zero-hour contracts are also known as “casual contracts”, and employees on a zero-hour contract are essentially “on call”. This means their employer doesn’t have to give them any work at all – but can call on zero-hour employees as and when they need them.

Zero-hour contracts have got a lot of bad press recently. You might have heard about companies like Uber or Deliveroo which employ a lot of people on zero-hour contracts.

However, they’re not necessarily bad news for employees, as the system works both ways. Employees don’t have to accept work from their zero-hour employers, and can accept work from other employers as well.

However, a lot of people don’t know this, and some employers tell zero-hour employees that they’re not allowed to work for other employers. This isn’t true, and knowing this can help you make zero-hour contracts work for you – for example if you're a student, are hunting for a job, or have access to other work.

Why is flexible working on the up?

We’re sure it won’t take you long to figure out why flexible working is attractive for workers. At its best, flexible working can give you:

  • A better work/life balance, which is particularly good for parents.
  • More control over your work life.
  • The freedom to work on different projects for different people.

But it’s advances in technology which have made working from home and self-employment accessible to more people. The internet means people can stay in touch more easily, using email and apps like Skype and Google Hangouts to connect. Many more people use online systems to work as well.

It can also benefit employers as well. You might be interested to learn that many team members here at Success at School work remotely. When we asked the boss Mitesh what he likes about this, he told us that it means he can employ the best people from all over the country, and they can stay in touch with the schools and colleges, employers and universities we connect our readers with.

Homeworking stats 1998 to 2014
The number of people working from home has been steadily rising

Ask the team, and they’ll tell you they get more done – with fewer of the distractions you encounter in the office, and less time spent travelling to and from work. In fact, the numbers show that people’s performance goes up by 13% when they work from home.

There’s no question that people love this! In the first three months of 2014, 4.2 million people worked from home, nearly 14% of everyone in work in the UK. In 1998, the number was just over 11%. In 2015, the overwhelming majority of employers in the UK offered some kind of flexible working. So technology and attitudes are changing quickly, and more and more people are taking the plunge.

So what does this mean for me?

OK, so we’ve thrown a lot of facts and figures at you. And if you’re anything like us, you’ll be pretty excited by the rise in opportunities to work flexibly. But you’re probably wondering what this means for your career when you start work.

Well, the crucial thing is to know how to make that flexibility work for you – not against you.

The chances are you’ll start your career as an employee. Remember that you have the right to request flexible working once you’ve settled into your role, and this could help you make your work fit in better with your lifestyle and improve that all-important work/life balance – both of which could boost your productivity at work.

When it comes to working from home, we’ve already discussed the benefits. Here are some challenges you should bear in mind:

  • Working from home doesn’t work for everyone. It can be lonely, and if you lack discipline, distractions can be a problem, which isn’t good for anyone.
  • When you work at home, it can be tricky to keep life and work separate. You can overcome this by having a single room for work, and making sure you switch off at a particular time to keep your work/life balance manageable.

And what about working for myself?

Young person workingMore and more, people are selling their services to others – particularly those with artistic, literary and media skills. This includes young people, who are taking on self-employment in rising numbers. If you have writing, coding or design skills – to name but three examples – you could sell these skills to clients while you study and in your spare time.

The “gig economy” we talked about earlier is great if you’re looking for extra work or want to expand your skills – which could help you on the way to setting up your own business. However, here are some of the things you should bear in mind in the early days:

  • Self-employed people tend to save less money for their retirement. This might seem a long way off, but it’s important to plan ahead just like everyone else.
  • If you’re self-employed and work for lots of different clients, your earnings might differ from month to month.
  • Job security can be a problem for self-employed people and those on zero-hour contracts.

Self-employed people are responsible for their own finances. You need to keep a record of the money you spend on work and the money you earn, and make sure you complete a tax self-assessment every year. You’ll need to set aside the money to pay your taxes in a lump sum.

People who work for one employer are not considered by the government to be self-employed. If you find yourself working for one person over a long period of time, you’ll need to discuss whether you should become an employee instead.

Flexibility is an increasingly important part of the workplace – and potentially, this means big benefits for you and the people you work for. We hope today’s blog has helped you understand how to take advantage of this trend.

If you like the idea of working for yourself, check out our inspirational interview with three young people who started their own businesses and are enjoying their successes today.

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