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30 years at the forefront of insight on Flexible and Smart Working

It’s been my privilege to have seen, over the course of nearly 30 years, flexible working move from a dubious workplace eccentricity to mainstream acceptance. And, indeed, to have contributed in a small way to its progress over these three decades.

The core of Flexibility has been research, writing and editing – with a strong emphasis on evidence-based practical implementations as much as measuring the impacts and future-scanning in research projects at national and international levels. Inevitably this led to consulting work, as innovators in organisations wanted to understand more about how to do get the best results from flexible working. Probably due to the nature of our origins, the connection within the government sector has been particularly strong.

This practical focus led to the founding of the Smart Work Network (2007) and development of an integrated approach to change, captured in publications since 2002.

Origins and timeline

Flexibility began life in October 1993. It’s mission was set out as:

Observing the future of work

Flexibility aims to inform and stimulate debate about the changing world of work, by bringing together research and opinion about innovations in employment practice, organisational development, technological change and public policy.

From the beginning, Flexibility always had a strong focus not only on the potential benefits of new ways of working, but also how to implement them in the best ways. In particular, there’s always been a focus on the potential for including marginalised or disadvantaged groups, for improved environmental outcomes and smarter ways of organising public services.

Flexibility originated from the edges of the “Cambridge Phenomenon”. It began life as a monthly printed journal, supported by the European Commission and Mercury Communications (remember them?), produced by the Home Office Partnership (later HOP Associates).  It was one of the first business journals to take the bold leap of going entirely online in 1997.

Timeline of
30 years at the forefront of insight on Flexible and Smart Working


Part of the original brief was to spread knowledge and raise awareness from the various European commission-funded R&D projects run by the parent company, e.g. on teleworking for people with disabilities, for people in remote rural areas, and remote working in the construction industry – as well as reporting the wide range of other European-wide initiatives.

Screenshot of Flexibility #1 October 1993
Flexibility #1, October 1993

Regular guest articles brought in news and opinion from around the world, with regular features on the USA, Europe and Japan. And there were special guest articles by and interviews with innovators, researchers, authors and UK politicians across the parties.

We’ve not been afraid to challenge dominant viewpoints – whether from traditionalists or from flexible working/remote working advocates when it seems to us the evidence is lacking, or where there is much more nuance in the data than is being reported. So balance and objectivity have always been central to the approach.

Sharing best practice and developing the strategic approach to Smart Working

Flexibility has always been committed to sharing knowledge and best practice on new ways of working.

We were one of the early pioneers of taking a joined-up approach, covering People, Property and Technology within a strategic framework. This was consolidated in a series of publications starting in 2002 with The Complete Guide to Flexible Working (supported by Toshiba).

This became the basis for internal Smart Working Handbooks for clients, that provided tailored guidance for their implementations of Smart Working, starting from 2005 with a London local authority and an international government-supported agency.

In 2011 a public version of the Smart Working Handbook (1st edition) was launched, updated in 2015 and supported by a consortium of private sector companies and the UK Department for Business.

Flexibility worked extensively with the UK Cabinet Office in developing the government’s Smart Working programme for the civil service. The Smart Working Handbook was adapted for the initial guidance for the Civil Service. It was then was a key element underpinning the British Standards PAS 3000 Smart Working Code of Practice, that all central government departments and agencies were obliged to adopt by the end of 2022.

During this period we worked with numerous organisations across sectors to support their implementations of Smart/Agile/Flexible Working. This involved raising awareness amongst senior leaders, training for managers and teams, as well as working on workplace redesign and developing the business case for change. All this was informed by research, and information-sharing within the Smart Work Network.

Leading-edge research into the wider business, social and environmental impacts

We led several innovative research projects with the UK Department for Transport, starting in teh late 1990s, investigating the impacts on the roads of flexible working and online services.

Further research projects carried this into Europe and EU/US projects, looking at the potential of new ways of working in contributing to sustainable transport options, alongside other demand management measures.

Further work included working with partners to look at the role of live/work, homeworking and workhubs (i.e. coworking) for the low carbon economy, and European programmes looking at issues ranging from Smart Economic Growth to proposed legal frameworks for telework regulation.

From the margins to the mainstream – so is it ‘job done’?

So over the years, we’ve witnessed and reported on increasing levels of flexible working, the steady rise of distributed working, including homeworking/teleworking, the growth of third-party work-centres of various forms, changes to how workplaces are conceived and designed, significant technological improvements (and lags!) alongside ever-growing emphases on environmental sustainability, wellbeing and human-centric workplaces. We’ve seen people given the right to request flexible working incorporated into legislation in many countries, and extending that from specific groups such as parents of young children, to the workforce as a whole.

The lockdowns during the pandemic exposed people to ways of working that they might have thought impossible, or at least were never in scope. Flexibility has reached centre stage.

However, there is more to be done. Implementations are too often half-hearted compromises that fail to deliver the full range of potential benefits. Flexibility is too often constrained by industrial age thinking, and dragged down by impractical rules and mandates. (See our article on Hybrid Working: A case of new dogmas learning a few new tricks?)

So the mission continues – to help make flexible working smarter and more dynamic, to bring benefits across the Triple Bottom Line.

And, of course, the world doesn’t stand still. New technologies, new fields of work, and new ideas for workplaces, all change the context in which smart and flexible working can make a positive difference. We’ll be keeping an eye on the future of work, analysing current trends and spying on what’s coming over the horizon.

Finally – there’s a lot of catching up that we need to do as societies. Many areas of public policy are still based on the rigid separation of home and workplace, and of continuous standardised careers as employees from school to retirement. Developing appropriate policy will be a continuing focus of Flexibility – just as it has been over the past 30 years.