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Is time on your side?

An overview of flexible working time options



Implementing time flexibility in the workplace in most cases means a variation from the traditional 9-5 or 5.30. Beyond that, there is a wide variety of practices, offering different amounts of structure, regularity and flexibility.

We can group the options as follows:

Variable hours

  • flexitime

  • annualised hours

  • zero hours

  • time accounts

Restructured hours

  • compressed working week

Reduced hours

  • part-time

  • job-share

  • term-time working

  • phased retirement

Leave options

  • maternity/paternity leave

  • sabbaticals

  • career breaks

Flex those hours

Many of the working arrangements generally classified as "flexible" are flexible only in the sense that there may be a degree of choice about finding a suitable working option. Some options, however, may see greater or smaller degrees of daily variation in the number of hours worked.


A flexible hours scheme, or flexitime, usually involve working a set of "core hours" - perhaps 10 until 3 or 4, with the ability to vary the hours either side of this. Sometimes this is accompanied by the use of punch-cards and time-clocks, introducing an element of factory-like discipline into offices that may have previously relied on the vigilant eye of a supervisor or office manager to see that everyone was doing their hours.

These days it is more likely that time-management software will be used to register and track employee hours.

Alternatively, there may be a choice of temporal patterns that can be chosen (usually a selection of 7.5 or 8 hour spells between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.). A supervisor can see that there is sufficient office cover at all times, or teams can be entrusted to work  it out between themselves on an equitable basis.

For employees the benefits are:

  • the opportunity to avoid rush-hour commutes

  • work-life balance advantages, e.g. in being able to take a child to or from school, or leave early/start late to allow time for sports training

  • the ability to schedule quiet times to get on with work.

For employers the benefits are mainly in being able to

  • recruit and retain staff who have other life commitments or interests

  • schedule work across longer portions of the day, so extending customer service.

Flexitime is reportedly losing favour amongst managers who favour more predictable arrangements such as the compressed working week. Badly run schemes risk becoming a free-for-all where people roll in when they like and no-one know what is going on, and this is a scenario greatly feared by managers who prefer to "manage by eyeball".

But such attitudes are underpinned by assumptions about performance - that people are only working when you can see them and have high levels of control over their scheduling. Instead managers need to be prepared, as far as possible, to monitor by output. Otherwise they may work very long days trying to keep an eye on their flexi-workers - the ones who start early and the ones who leave late.

Flexitime on its own, however, does have an air of being somewhat old-fashioned unless combined with flexible place options. A requirement to attend the office during certain core hours may well go beyond the pointless to the inefficient, if the work that needs doing can be done from anywhere.

Annualised hours

An annualised hours scheme "does what it says on tin" - an annual total of hours is agreed, and these are worked in variable quantities over the year by agreement with the employer.

These kinds of hours are most common in industries that have peaks and troughs of demand, and can be a way of getting round the need for overtime. In recent times it has become more popular in the banking and financial services industries, as they have moved towards call-centre based operations and try to align operations more towards consumer expectations.

There are a variety of types of scheme, but typically the annual hours are based on a 35 to 40 hour week multiplied up to an annual total, less annual leave and public holidays. Scheduling work takes a variety of forms: there may be an average monthly total to be worked, or it may take the form of periods of intense working followed by periods of rest - e.g. the two weeks on, two weeks off pattern found in the oil industry.

In Europe there remains a requirement to conform to the Working Time Directive, so that an average 48-hour week is not exceeded and minimum rest periods are adhered to.

Annualised hours contracts have caused concern in trade union circles due to the possibilities of exploitation, health and safety issues related to periods of intense working, and the erosion of overtime opportunities. but such arrangements can in principle give employees who need it the variations of employment intensity to dovetail with other aspirations in life.

Annualised hours can also work with part-time arrangements, and may be scheduled so as to achieve de facto term-time working.

Zero hours contracts

Zero hours arrangements have proved controversial on a number of fronts. There is some doubt as to whether in legal terms it constitutes a form of employment at all. For some it conjures up images of oppressed wannabe burger flippers waiting at the beck and call of exploitative employers, obtaining crumbs of employment when the need (for the employer) arises.

Such a contract is, in effect, an "on call arrangement". Many agencies for temporary workers work on this kind of basis. A relationship is entered into between employee and an employer, but generally it is not characterised by "mutuality of obligation" - the employer is not obliged to find work, and the putative employee is not obliged to accept what is offered.

Some employers may have a "pool" of temporary workers "employed" on this basis. Sometimes the relationship can include retainers to cover periods without allocation of work, and can incorporate benefits such as training and use of facilities, discounts, etc.

It's a work practice that encompasses a number of grey areas, but one that may suit both parties in certain circumstances. With or without being formalised, it can apply to retired workers who enter an agreement to be called in as necessary to provide the benefits of their experience.

Because of the overlap with temporary working, this work option is often classified under a "flexible contract" option rather than a "flexible time" option.

Time accounts

Time accounts are a formalisation of the age old process of taking time off to compensate for extra time worked, and vice versa. One can build up time credits in one's account by working one's socks off - it's in some ways a more flexible form of compressed working week or even annualised hours, with the key ingredient that the employee achieves a greater degree of "time sovereignty".

These kind of agreements are becoming more common in continental Europe as a way of adding flexibility to collective agreements between unions and employers on standard levels of working time. Time accounts will therefore tend to work within agreed parameters. Most time account agreements specify a time within accounts have to be balanced, to prevent huge holidays building up or excessive periods of working. They also usually specify maximum credits (days off earned) and debits (working days owed).

Time accounts can also tie in to employee benefits schemes and other workplace initiatives - so credits can be awarded for other reasons (e.g. instead of cash bonuses or health insurance). In some Green Travel Plans time credits are earned for not driving to work.

Compressed those hours

An increasingly popular option is the "compressed working week", which offers perhaps greater regularity and predictability than the potentially more fluid options above. Amongst the most common options are

  • the 4 day week, also referred to as  a"4/10 schedule". Employees on this schedule work 4 10-hour days, with the fifth day off

  • the "9 day fortnight", also referred to as a 9/80 schedule or 9/8 schedule. A "9/8 schedule" means that on 4 days per week you work 9 hours, and on the 5th you either work 8 hours or you have a day off. So for example, you may work 9-hour days Monday through Thursday, and on Fridays, you either work an 8-hour day or take the day off. In England this schedule is often known as a "nine-day fortnight" (meaning you have 9 working days every two weeks). 9/80 means that you work 80 hours over 9 days, instead of the traditional 10. They all add up ton much the same thing, in that you get an extra day off every second week by working a little longer on the other days.

In all the options above, full-time hours can be worked but in a different format to the traditional 9-5. It is worth remembering that workers in primary industries, manufacturing and many service industries such as hotel and catering have always worked shifts outside the 9-5, and managers have for decades been dreaming up innovative shift patterns to achieve optimal use of human resources and plant. Much of the apparent novelty stems from two aspects: application in office environments, and allowing more autonomy to staff in finding their most suitable working times.

On the next page we outline the reduced hours and leave options.



Revised July 2010


This article looks at the range of flexible time options, outlining where the benefits generally fall, and how to move closer to a win-win situation for employer and employee.

It also advises where it can be beneficial to combine various forms of flexible work.








All material copyright Flexibility.co.uk 2009