The need for flexibility

Valuing people as individuals

Valuing people in our sector as individuals, who can integrate all the different areas of their lives at work, should be a core principle of successful flexible working. Essentially this is about welcoming people's whole selves in the workplace. And flexibility should be for everyone, not just available for a limited number of 'reasons.' Opening up flexibility for all reduces stigma and builds equity and buy in across organisations.

But there is no one solution that works for us all, it's down to responding to people as individuals at different moments of their lives. Responding with trust and empathy around flexible working will support inclusion, belonging, equity, and wellbeing so everyone can thrive.

Offering flexibility says 'we value you as an individual, we believe in you, and we respect what you need. As an organisation we will support you to use your skills.

Kathryn Howard, Assistant Director of People, OD and HR, Samaritans

Flexibility is not just about a good work-life balance, it's also about how to engage people so that they can be productive. Everyone is different, so we have to recognise that that means everyone works differently.

Ama Afrifa-Tchie, Head of People, Wellbeing and Equity, Mental Health First Aid England

Stigma and barriers

There is still considerable stigma, shame and misconceptions surrounding flexible working which can make it hard for people to ask for the working patterns they need to thrive and do their best work.

One of the objections we sometimes hear to flexibility, when it is only offered for specific reasons, is: 'it won't be fair on everyone else'. But the resentment and stigma goes if flexibility can be for everyone

Sarabajaya Kumar, Trustee, NCVO

Even with the huge shift in working practices we have seen due to covid-19 – it is important to remember that misconceptions and negative perceptions remain.

Although my organisation enabled me to go from full to part-time with ease, I remember worrying that I was going to lose my job if I asked to change my hours and would have to take on the added stress of job hunting as I prepared to start my degree.

Marcus Wratten, Social Media Manager, Hestia

Negative attitudes toward flexibility are too often a barrier to people applying for new or more senior roles. This means the sector risks missing out on a wider diversity of talent because the structures and mindset isn't there to support them.

We are definitely not there yet! We need to keep our eye on the ball. We know that flexible working was previously seen as something that makes our lives more difficult. So, we need to take people on a journey with us.

Kathryn Howard, Assistant Director of People, OD and HR, Samaritans

When I started thinking about being a chief executive my single biggest anxiety was the conversation about flexible working. I was already a first-timer – how could I be taken seriously as a part-timer too?

Becky Hewitt, Former CEO, Changing Faces

The more flexible working is done by men – it will benefit men, and chip away at the stigma that can attach to working mothers.

Kirstie Axtens, Head of Employer Services, Working Families

Putting it all on the individual

It's not the flexible worker who is the 'problem' – organisations become the problem when they are not designed to include people and support them to work in their best way.

Sarabajaya Kumar, Trustee, NCVO

Too often it is left to employees to 'make flexible working work'. Organisations must step up to make sure their culture, systems and structures support flexible working. Anxiety about seeming less committed can make individuals seeking flexibility feel the need to 'over compensate' for their working patterns by working too hard.

Many feel it is their responsibility alone to 'make things work' — and are reluctant to ask the organisation for structural or systemic support. Organisations who truly value inclusion, equity and wellbeing need to be visible and proactively step in to support flexibility in their organisations, for example by proactively considering issues like communication, timings of meetings, wellbeing and adequate and equitable cover, and relocation of work.

Employers should provide guidance to employees on putting together a good proposal for working flexibly — the onus shouldn't all be on the employee.

Kristen Axtens, Head of Employer Services, Working Families


At its heart, flexibility is about inclusion for everyone. Flexible working should be a central part of conversations about social justice, social mobility and how charities become more inclusive, equitable and diverse.

We might typically associate flexible working with parents and carers, but there is growing understanding of how flexibility in employment can be of benefit to individuals of all ages, and in many different circumstances, across the voluntary sector.

There needs to be a stronger social justice narrative around flexible working.

Andrew Bazeley, Policy, Insight and Public Affairs Manager, Fawcett Society

For example, remote working can mean charity workforces don't have to live in areas of high cost accommodation or spend time and money on long commutes, so they can be more reflective of the communities that they serve.

Flexible hours can also support those managing health conditions like cancer treatment or their mental health and wellbeing.

For example, removing the need to make a rush hour commute with a variation to working hours or locations, as well as offering a variety of ways to connect — both online and in person — can make a workplace more accessible for all, including people with disabilities and neurodivergence.

We know that if you have anxiety or panic attacks then getting on the tube on a Monday morning is not the place to be, so it's sensible to say "actually if it's better for you to come in an hour later and miss the rush then that's fine", let's think about what makes sense from a mental health point of view.

Paul Farmer, Chief Executive, Mind

Normalising flexibility has the potential to be life changing for disabled employees and candidates by levelling the playing field and stimulating much needed investment in IT and other infrastructure.

It also sparks a vital — long overdue — conversation about power dynamics and culture.

Changes during covid-19 led to a massive levelling of the playing field. People felt included for the first time...not having to travel opens up jobs to disabled candidates who can work from home entirely, or predominantly.

Louise Youngman, Executive Director of People, Scope

Flexibility can also play an important role in tackling systemic forms of racism, misogyny, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia in the workplace.

It's important to listen to what people have to say generally about flexible working but we particularly need to reach out to people of colour about some of the issues they may experience.

Paul Farmer, Chief Executive, Mind

People who already experience structural discrimination will face additional barriers to accessing flexibility, so it is critical that we listen carefully to understand the specific barriers that people of colour, and other marginalised groups, experience so they can be addressed.

For example, of those who adopted home working as a result of the pandemic, 40% of Black, Asian and minority ethnic workers reported working more hours than they had before (compared to 29% of White workers) but 37% of the same group said they were more productive (compared to 24% of White workers).

Flexible working can be a tool for reducing pressures placed disproportionately on women. This is particularly important in the voluntary sector where female workers make up67% of the workforce and where covid-19 has brought additional pressures such as home-schooling and unpredictable absences from education.

Sometimes flexible working keeps women in smaller roles than they could do — because they feel “fortunate” to have flexibility that they might not get elsewhere or in another role. That’s fine if that’s right for the individual of course — but it should be a choice if they want to move to a bigger role.

Kathryn Howard, Assistant Director of People, OD and HR, Samaritans

It’s also critical for supporting LGBTQ+ staff. For example, flexible working can support individuals who may otherwise feel compelled to change their appearance or mannerisms, or to hide part of their identity, at work.

Working reduced or flexible hours, working from home, and job sharing could also be ways in which transgender employees are supported, especially during a period of gender transition.

Early on in my career, trust empowered me to feel able to schedule appointments related to my gender transition — which often needed to be done at relatively short notice — without having to seek permission or share the details of these with my manager.

Pip Gardner, Chief Executive, The Kite Trust

Ensuring flexibility is open to all means people don’t need to ‘disclose’ issues or needs that they don’t necessarily feel comfortable sharing. It can be traumatising and stigmatising to feel the need to justify flexibility by giving a ‘good enough’ reason.

Best practice for employers is to take a ‘reason neutral’ approach to decision-making when employees make a request. Flexibility is for everyone, and done right it has the potential to make a critical contribution to equality, diversity and inclusion.


Done well, flexible working should be a key to unlocking better wellbeing at work. It should help remove the stress and worry about balancing caring responsibilities with work. It should help people managing a health condition or undergoing gender transition surgery to do this with dignity and privacy.

More flexibility would make for a happier sector — we don't talk about that enough.

Sarabajaya Kumar, Trustee, NCVO

It should also allow everyone the time to take proper breaks, have genuine work/life balance, and do more of the things they enjoy. The Office for National Statistics shows that remote workers have sickness absence rates of 0.9%, compared to 2.2% for employees without a flexible working arrangement.

The importance of a carefully tailored individual approach to flexible working was mentioned again and again through our conversations across the sector.

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 10 February 2022