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Reduce skills shortages by creating more flexible working for frontline workers

Flex on the frontline

We’re urging Scottish employers to create more flexibility for frontline workers to help recruit and retain good staff, and reduce skills shortages in our latest report Flex on the Frontline.

While flexible working has increased because of the pandemic, office workers have benefited most with more remote and hybrid working options. While people working in frontline roles, such as nurses, carers, plumbers and delivery drivers, have often missed out on any flexible working, which includes more control over hours and how much work as well as location.

We know flexible working is more challenging in some sectors. We won’t pretend otherwise. But our research highlights how frontline workers’ expectations around flexible working are often much higher than employers’ and this is likely to cause problems – especially around recruitment and retention - if employers don’t take notice.

Expectations of flex

Nearly six in ten (58%) Scottish employers who couldn’t offer some form of flexible working to all staff during the pandemic said this was simply because people worked in frontline and public facing roles and suggests they felt there was nothing more they could do.

But demand for flexible working among frontline workers is high, especially for the 35% considering changing jobs right now. Of these, almost two thirds (64%) say flexibility is a priority when deciding whether to apply for, or accept, a new role, compared with just 53% who say salary.

While nearly half (45%) of frontline workers without flexible working think their job could be done at different times to normal, and nearly a third (29%) think some parts of their job could be done at another location, suggesting there is much more scope for increasing flexibility than some employers realise.

Skills shortages

The gap in expectations is more striking given that many industries with high numbers of frontline workers, such as health and social care and hospitality, are struggling to find the new recruits they need to fill thousands of vacancies.

Earlier this month, Public Health Scotland announced record nursing vacancies with 6,200 posts unfilled. While last year the UK hit more than a million vacancies for the first time, with the hospitality sector, covering hotels, pubs and restaurants, particularly badly affected.

Finding flexibility and new ways of working

Our co-founder and director, Lisa Gallagher, said: “We know it’s harder to create flexibility in frontline roles. But the fact someone can’t work from home shouldn’t mean they’re written off when it comes to new ways of working. We’re urging employers to get more creative, or they’re going to lose great workers and struggle to recruit new ones.

“Frontline workers want work-life harmony just as much as office workers, and many feel their current role could be more flexible. We’d encourage employers to talk to teams about what might be possible. Managers don’t need to have all the answers, and workers are generally very sensible with suggestions.

“There are lots of relatively small things employers can also do to increase work-life harmony for frontline workers, such as allowing direct input to shift rotas, making it easier to change shifts, offering good quality parttime roles and allowing people to use leave in different ways to cover short appointments and events. It’s not all about wholesale moves to home working and flexitime.”

Benefits of frontline flex

Employers that already offer flexibility to frontline workers cited many benefits in the report. Nearly half (45%) said flexible working had increased work life balance across the business, and almost four in ten (39%) said productivity had increased, while 37% said it had improved mental health and wellbeing, and 35% said it reduced sickness and absence.

Around half of Scotland’s workforce are in frontline roles (3). Of these, 53% say they’ve had access to some form of flexible working in the last six months. This is lower than the average for all Scottish workers (60%) but shows that many frontline employers are already exploring flexibility and new ways of working for staff.

Many are thinking more creatively with 48% of frontline employers saying it was likely they would give staff extra time off, such as a day off a month for wellbeing. While 45% of frontline employers said it was likely they would bring in extra staff to create bigger teams to create greater capacity and shift cover.

Small changes, big difference: Mollie’s story

Mollie Hampson works full-time in customer service for car retailer Arnold Clark, where employees can submit flexible leave requests for up to three hours at a time away from work. The flexible leave is paid, and in addition to existing annual leave, to cover appointments and life events.

Mollie, who’s 22 and lives in Glasgow with her parents and her miniature dachshund, Marley, said: “The hours in our industry can be quite long. So having a bit more flexibility around these makes such a difference.

“I use the time to cover things like doctor’s appointments, or if my parents are out and I need to be home to let my dog out, or walk him. Recently I had family visiting from Canada and we had a meal planned for the Saturday evening. I was able to book a couple of hours off so I could make the most of the occasion and spend more time with relatives I hadn’t seen for several years.

“We can use the time for anything, and it’s been made very clear that leaving early for a special night out, or spending time with family and friends is just as valid a reason as a medical appointment.

“We’re mindful about what we ask for. We know we need to have cover across the team and if someone is on leave, we won’t ask for time off ourselves. But when we can take the time, we’re allowed to. It means I can do a great job at work and still take time getting glammed up for a night out that’s important to me. I don’t have to miss some of the fun.”

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