But for millions across the country there's far less flexibility, as employers insist on maintaining the time-keeping standards brought in during the Victorian age. For many people, in particular women with children, this means they leave the workplace and their skills and experience goes with them. But thankfully, some firms are realising that by offering flexible arrangements they can hire top quality staff at a lower cost. Also, they can unlock the creativity and ideas of their teams and, in some cases respond better to the needs of their customers. Abolishing the 9-5 and offering flexibility isn't a staff perk, it's about creating better companies.
Sylvia Laws started a communications agency, Technical Associates, 20 years ago, but found it difficult to grow as it struggled to attract the right staff. The company is based in Luton and didn't have the same appeal of many London-based agencies. However, by offering flexible terms she has been able to hire very experienced and capable people, primarily mothers, who want to work but yearn to leave their commuting life behind. "It was hard for us to recruit and the lack of available people stopped us from growing," says Laws. "However, in the last 10 years the technology has been there to enable people to work from home and so we've been able to grow. Now I can say to people 'I really want you, what are your terms?'."
Laws still insists on meetings with staff and the majority of her employees come to the office for two days per week. She says there are "core hours" when people need to be available and working. However, some of her staff have greater flexibility to enable them to manage family time. "One of my staff works from seven but finishes at four and doesn't work Fridays. She could earn double elsewhere but, to her, flexibility is more important than an extra 40 grand," Laws says.
The big question for many employers with regards to flexible hours is management and oversight. Staff are "invisible" when working from home, so how do managers ensure staff aren't lounging about? Dave Coplin is the chief envisioning officer at Microsoft UK and author of Business Reimagined, which examines flexible working. He says too many businesses measure the wrong things and reward "presenteeism" – those who make a show of being "at work". "The problem we've got is that we tend to measure productivity and process, rather than outcome. This is what drives presenteeism. People are being measured by how many emails are being sent out," says Coplin.
Coplin says businesses should focus on measuring things that are business critical, rather than if someone maintains their office hours or appears busy. He says it requires a sea-change in the way many managers think and work. "This change is very scary for a lot of people, especially for middle managers. Some people who want to see people at their desks and see your emails being sent, I want to see outcome," he says.
Customer service is one area which flexible working might not seem suited to. Paying customers expect to be able to raise issues or ask questions as and when they need to. However, the increased use of email and mobile communications has altered how the public connects with businesses. David Bird, founder of Online Mortgage Advisor, has instituted flexible working among his team of brokers, despite it being a heavily customer-focused business. He says customers will email his business at all times of the day, often when they are sitting on their sofas looking for properties late at night. However, many get a speedier response than they would if they contacted a business that operated just 9-5. "These enquiries come through 24 hours per day and the advisers can choose when they would like to pick them up," says Bird.
Bird's team work on a commission, so are motivated to respond to customers regularly. "It's up to the adviser how hard they work, but they will make more money if they put the hours in," he says. "They can work from anywhere, it is up to them to manage their own diaries. You could almost see it as a lifestyle business."
Offices aren't always the best places for creative people. The noise and distraction of the open-plan office is not always conducive to coming up with ideas. Many creative people prefer to be somewhere quiet and comfortable, or outside, or on the move. "My creative director has his best moments when he's out walking his dog," says Laws.
The office is a good place for meetings and conversing with people, so having a flexible arrangements doesn't mean there aren't times when everyone shouldn't be together. "If you talk about flexibility some people think that you never go the office. But I know that unless I go once per week then the benefits tend to decrease. It's about striking the right balance," says Coplin.
The big question all entrepreneurs should be asking about flexible working is 'will it help my business to grow?'. It must be said there is no definitive answer to that but there are plenty of examples of businesses that credit it with their recent successes. Technical Associates which has doubled its business despite tough economic conditions, is clearly one of them. "We have grown from £2m to £4m in the past four years and we haven't lost any staff to other businesses in eight years. We have very low absenteeism and I think it's because people feel they are working for somewhere which is really good and wants them to be happy," says Laws.
Guardian Small Business Network.