3. The future of flexible working arrangements

Greater use of flexible work arrangements has been a feature of the public service over the last few years, and particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic. Flexible working arrangements are not new, but they were used much more often during the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns in parts of the world. Most public servants experienced flexibility in two ways: adapting their working hours, and/or adapting their work location, usually by working from home. The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic represented a ‘crash test’ for public administrations, allowing them to better understand the positive sides and the limitations and risks such flexibility could represent.

With the COVID-19 pandemic receding, public administrations are at a turning point. Flexible working arrangements trialled during the pandemic have the potential to be modified and/or placed on a more sustainable footing, potentially delivering gains in productivity and employee satisfaction. Much attention is focussed on trying to identify ‘the right number’ of days that staff should reasonably be expected to be physically present in the office, in the private sector as much as the public. While important, this narrow focus misses the broader questions that underpin fundamental changes to how the public service will look in the future.

Going forward, public administrations must reconcile the tension between going back to the way things were before the pandemic (e.g. remote working only in exceptional circumstances) and shaping a ‘new normal’ centred around greater individualisation of working modalities, including greater flexibility in working hours and location. This individualisation brings new questions to explore: what jobs are best suited to flexible working arrangements? How to leave more space for trust in interpersonal relations? And how best to manage staff in this new environment?

The OECD Recommendation on Public Service Leadership and Capability addresses some of these issues through it call to adherents to explore and establish responsive and adaptive public employment systems:

This ‘new normal’ is still at an early stage of development in most OECD countries, with in-depth and longer-term analysis of the implications to productivity, well-being, and workplaces for both employers and employees (for an overview of recent research, see (Edelmann, Schossboeck and Albrecht, 2021[2])). The OECD Recommendation on Public Service Leadership and Capability highlights the need for public administrations to work towards “making available adaptable and remote working options where possible and suited to the needs of the organisation, in order to enhance productivity” (OECD, 2019[1]). The recommendation, adopted before the pandemic, underlines the relevance of flexible working arrangements in developing workforce mobility and adaptability.

This chapter draws on survey data from the OECD Survey on Public Service Leadership and Capability to describe the current state-of-play with regard to flexible working arrangements across the OECD.

Flexible ways of adjusting work hours and location in public administrations pre-date the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote working experiments were already taking place in the 1970s in the United States public administration, and in 1996, the US Federal administration developed the National Telecommuting Initiative (NTI) that sought to enable part-time remote work for 60 000 federal employees by October 1998, and for 160 000 by the end of 2002 (Wendell Joice, 2000[8]). More recently, under the 2018 Austrian presidency of the Council of the European Union, the European Public Administration Network (EUPAN) published a report on flexible ways of working in EU public administrations (Korunka, Kubicek and Risak, 2018[7]). This report focused on identifying the types of modalities offered, to whom, and to which extent. The study shows that, pre-pandemic, flexible ways of adjusting work hours and location were numerous across the European Union, but usually only covered few public employees. This meant that in many countries, the legal and operational basis to implement those modalities already existed before the pandemic, and could be adapted and used at a greater scale relatively quickly. However, comparison between that dataset and the one presented in this report is limited due to the scope of questions and respondents.

As public administrations had to adapt, often overnight, to the pandemic of COVID-19 and the lockdowns that took place in several OECD countries, remote work went from being exceptional to the modality by-default of large shares of the public workforce. In close to two thirds of OECD countries, over 60% of the central/federal administration workforce worked remotely during the first wave of COVID-19 (OECD, 2020[9]). This experience became a ‘new normal’ in many public administrations: in 2020, only 14% of OECD public administrations expected to see a decrease in the use of remote work modalities.

The scale of remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated the potential for its continued and longer-term use post-COVID. However, it also highlighted some limitations to remote working in public administrations:

  • First, not all jobs can be done remotely. In the category of ‘public administration and defence’, around two-thirds of jobs are estimated to be compatible with remote working. Those less compatible usually refer to manual jobs. Sectors such as finance (93% of jobs remote workable), communication (79%) or education (68%) feature a higher share of jobs that can be done remotely than agriculture, construction or mining and quarrying (all less than 20%) (Joint Research Centre, 2020[10]).

  • Second, not all jobs that can be performed remotely are performed remotely. Sometimes this is because of explicit guidelines issued by the employer or implicit expectations on physical presence conveyed by managers or peers.

  • Third, not all employees necessarily seek flexible ways of working. Research prior to the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted that, on average, employees were willing to accept an 8% pay-cut in exchange for the possibility to work remotely – a figure that may well have risen since. However, this number is contrasted by the fact that 20% of employees had little interest in remote working without financial compensation (Mas and Pallais, 2017[11]).

Remote work during the pandemic had two main effects on the relationship between the employer and the employee: schedules were generally more flexible to take into account obligations like home-schooling children during lockdowns, being sick, and caring for the sick. As managers had limited ways of monitoring activity in remote settings, the relationship between employers and employees was essentially driven by trust to a greater degree than in in-person settings. This shift impacted three types of relationships: employee/manager, employee/colleagues, and employee/organisation.

  • Manager-employee: As many public employees want to benefit from flexible ways of working managers need the right tools and competencies to deal with hybrid workforces. For hybrid teams to work effectively, different types of risks need to be managed, such as the inclusion of remote workers so that they are not unduly penalised at the expense of in-person workers. Adapting to flexible ways of working means that managers should have access to training, guidelines and tools to communicate effectively and build trust with their teams.

  • Employee-employee: The lack or the reduced amount of in-person interaction can also affect interpersonal relations between colleagues. In the case of remote work, informal face-to-face interactions are more complicated to organise and arguably less fulfilling than bumping into someone in the queue for a coffee. Where colleagues have different working hours, facilitating periods of overlap to enable in-person interaction may help make hybrid working arrangements more fulfilling.

  • Employee-organisation: Finally, employees must trust that their employer (organisation) will develop and apply flexible working arrangements at scale fairly. If imposed with little or no consultation, flexible working arrangements may weaken organisational trust and generate friction within teams.

The public service across the OECD is now trying to apply the lessons learned to a ‘new normal’ in which public employees expect greater ability to make use of flexible working arrangements. Across the OECD, an overwhelming majority of countries now expect a higher demand and use from employees of remote work modalities: 86% of countries regarding remote work part time, and 59% regarding remote work full time (Figure ‎3.2). The data suggest a consensus forming around a hybrid model in which public employees can work part of the time remotely and the rest of the time from the office. However, the impact of the pandemic on use of flexible working hours remains to be determined, with a majority of countries estimating either a stable demand for these types of arrangement, or not having the possibility to tell. In both scenarios, virtually no OECD country expects lower demand for use of flexible working arrangements from employees.

Public administrations have mostly been able to rely on pre-existing modalities to address new challenges raised by the pandemic and to address emerging employee expectations of greater flexibility post-pandemic. There is little indication that new measures and tools were introduced during the pandemic to give employees more ability to adjust their working hours, as shown in Figure ‎3.3. On the other hand, some countries such as Finland and Lithuania have developed new measures likely to stay in place over the long term for almost all the types of flexible working arrangements highlighted. This situation differs regarding remote work where new measures were implemented during the pandemic in over 75% of OECD countries. However, 35% of OECD countries expect to cancel recently-introduced modalities governing full-time remote work.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also been an opportunity for public administrations to analyse the benefits and risks associated with flexible working arrangements. Figure ‎3.4 highlights the positive factors that drive the development of flexible working practices: 78% of OECD countries highlight improved organisational productivity as being of primary importance in driving flexible working policies, 72% the improved well-being of employees, 61% the changing expectations from employees, and 50% the changing expectations from candidates. In other words, these types of flexible working modalities are seen as tools to make the public service more efficient, and able to attract and retain the talent it needs. In Portugal, for example, the public administration collected feedback both from senior level public servants (SLPS) and from other public employees on their remote work experience. Non-SLPS public employees highlighted the time saved in commuting and better personal/professional life balance as the main benefits of flexible working arrangements. Lack of professional contact, higher utility bills and long working hours were seen as the main negative ones (DGAEP, 2021[12]). It is probably still too early to tell whether the benefits of flexible working arrangements outweigh the negative impacts, but what is clear is that flexible working arrangements have clear benefits and clear risks. To harness benefits and mitigate risks requires clear communication between employees and managers, and continuing experimentation and collection of data to determine a reasonable middle ground.

Until recently, remote work used to be the exception rather than the rule. After the COVID-19 pandemic, however, 100% of OECD countries allow for part-time remote work to some extent (usually through mandating a minimum number of days in-person presence in the office), while more than three quarters (76%) allow for full-time remote work to some extent (Figure ‎3.5). Full-time remote work was rare in public administrations before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, with the scale of remote working during the pandemic, trust between manager and employee and between employees and their organisation is a key driver of flexibility when it comes to adjusting working hours and location. While many public administrations are still grappling with ‘the right number’ of remote working days per week, it is important to position these arrangements as part of a coherent strategy around staff attraction, engagement and retention.

Compared to remote working arrangements, public administrations seem to have used or put in place fewer measures to ensure flexibility in working hours during the COVID-19 pandemic (though data do not capture informal arrangements between managers and staff to allow them to adapt hours to care for children during lockdowns, for example). This is despite the fact that some arrangements to adapt working hours have been around for a long time and require less technical adaptation. Flexitime arrangements, for example, are used in 94% of OECD countries. Concretely, flexitime translates into a limited amount of core working hours expected of public servants, and additional hours providing flexibility for public servants to organise their time as they wish. In Norway for instance, most public employees must be in the office between 9 AM and 2:30 PM, organising the rest of their mandated working hours as they wish. Part-time work is also a long-standing modality: 94% of OECD countries allow part-time work, and 44% of countries allow part-time work for all public employees. Part-time work is an important feature for people who do not want to or cannot work full-time, often because of family circumstances, and can be the only way for them to be active on the labour market. Across the Eurozone, public services concentrate a higher share of part-time employment than other sectors of the economy (European Central Bank, 2018[13]). This modality is widely used in the general labour market across the OECD, representing on average 16.5% of all employees and up to 36% in the Netherlands – whether it is done voluntarily or not (OECD, 2022[14]).

Compressed working weeks and trust-based working hours remain less widely offered than other types of arrangements governing working hours, and usually cover only a limited amount of public employees. For example, in Portugal, trust-based working hours are only available to specific professions carrying out specific tasks, such as conducting studies.

Despite being used less than arrangements governing work location, arrangements governing flexibility in working hours are being tested across the OECD and graining traction. In France, an experiment regarding compressed working week in the Ministry of Ecological Transition and the Ministry of Territorial Cohesion and Relations with Territorial Communities took place between 2019 and June 2022. This experiment, compressing a full working week into four days targeted employees wishing to return gradually to full-time work following changes in their family situation.

Across OECD countries, there seems to be almost an even split between central and ministry-level of decision-making for modalities such as trust-based working hours, part-time remote working and full-time remote working (Figure ‎3.6). 56% of OECD countries organise part-time work at national level. Where possible, individual ministries are in charge of determining the conditions under which compressed working week or flexitime are possible. In all those situations, even when regulations are determined at the national level, the implementation is often left to the ministerial level. This ensures a minimum level of agreement on what is possible and in which conditions, leaving the ministries in charge of the concrete application depending on their ministerial context and realities on the ground. Central levels may have a particular role to play in ensuring consistency of application across Ministries and in providing support for organisations and managers, such as guidance on remote working or training on inclusive management to minimise the potential for bias against workers who make use of part-time arrangements.

In most cases across the OECD where flexible working arrangements are offered, employers have grounds to refuse to allow employees to make use of them Figure ‎3.7. Only Korea considers at least three of these flexible working arrangements as rights of employees. Embedding flexible ways of working therefore requires a constant dialogue between employers and employees. In over 70% of OECD countries, public employers do not have to justify refusing staff requests to make use of compressed working weeks, flexitime and trust-based working arrangements. Part-time work distinguishes itself from types of adjusted working hours by being an enforceable right of public employees in 26% of OECD countries, and an option which refusal needs to be justified in 26%.

This points to the trade-off between allowing employees a degree of autonomy to make use of such tools as they see fit, and the need for managers to retain discretion over use of these tools depending on operational requirements. Navigating this situation calls for healthy dialogue between managers and staff around optimal working methods. In this context, some agencies in Australia have introduced an “if not, why not” policy, in which the manager has to justify potential refusals of demands from the employee. Moreover, despite remote work being widespread across public administrations, it is an employee right to request it only in Italy, Korea and Slovenia. However, those modalities are enforceable rights for specific parts of the workforce, such as staff with a disability. Such distinction is quite common across the OECD, with stricter protections for the employee in case of recent childbirth, taking care of a parent, or having a disability.

The goal for public administrations is not only to offer flexible ways of working to employees, but also make sure their use is part of a broader workforce planning strategy. Integrating flexible ways of working into broader strategies depends on reconciling employee autonomy to make use of flexible ways of working with organisational needs to set some limits on how the workforce as a whole uses such options. Data on part time and remote work is collected centrally or at the ministry level in respectively 88% and 76% of OECD countries having implemented those, but less so for flexitime (63%), trust-based working hours (50%) and compressed working weeks (41%).

Gathering more data and using it more effectively also supports inclusion. For example, data can be used to inform policies ensuring that remote work does not come as a burden for specific categories of the population for personal or financial reasons. For instance, the pandemic highlighted the negative impacts remote work could have on the gendered distribution of domestic and family responsibilities. Across 25 OECD countries, 61.5% of mothers with children under 12 reported they were taking on the majority or entirety of extra care work, while only 22.4% of fathers did (OECD, 2021[15]). Another study highlighted that, in the United Kingdom, mothers were interrupted in their work during lockdown 50% more than fathers (Andrew et al., 2020[16]). Those results however reflect a very specific situation, when most childcare options were either limited or impossible.

Some OECD countries are also exploring inclusion through trying to mitigate the costs generated by widespread remote working: more than one in three (38%) have provisions compensating expenses related to remote-work, whether this remote work is mandatory (32% of OECD countries) or voluntary (22%) (Figure ‎3.9). The Belgian and French central administration have developed allowances of EUR 50 per month for employees working at least five days remotely per month in Belgium, and of EUR 2.88 per remote workday in France, with a ceiling of EUR 253.44 per year. Whereas most OECD countries provide basic technical equipment enabling remote-work, like laptops, other pieces of kit – like headphones for making calls, ergonomic chairs and desks, or lighting – may well come to more than the statutory allowance.

Regulations regarding remote work have drastically evolved for public and private employees (Eurofound, 2022[17]). However, countries followed different paths and processes in redefining regulations on the topic. Some countries, such as France or the Netherlands, chose to base those regulations both in the public and private sectors on collective bargaining. Nordic countries used more sectoral collective agreements. These different approaches highlight the relevance and importance of collective bargaining in defining the settings of the future of work.

Regulations around flexible working can consist in charters or code of conduct that can help define its shape and the associated expectations. Charters and codes of conduct have already been adopted by 65% of OECD countries (Figure ‎3.10). In 59% of cases, only ministries designed and implemented those charters, which can result in variation of what they entail. The other 41% of OECD countries with a charter have a central charter, which might be completed and reinforced by ministerial charters.

Charters on flexible working focus mainly on security protocols for documents and data (in 96% of OECD countries), expected working hours (79%), and protocols for managers to support remote management (63%) (Figure ‎3.11). The emphasis on expected working hours highlights the role of trust in implementing flexible working modalities. It also highlights the fact the border between working and non-working hours can be difficult to define, with a complex disassociation between workspace at home and personal environment. Such situation can create a situation of “work without end” (Eurofound and the International Labour Office, 2017[18]).

The concept of ‘right to disconnect’ seeks to address the issue of work-life balance in a hybrid world, and refers to a worker’s right to be able to refrain from engaging in work-related communications outside standard working hours. Over a third of OECD countries already have legal provisions to ensure the right to disconnect, either through law or collective agreements (Figure ‎3.12). A sensitive point of such regulation is to find a definition of working hours that is not too rigid yet still allows for some flexibility from an employee point of view. In Portugal, law n. º83/2021 of 6 December 2021 regulates remote work and the right to disconnect at a national level. Article 199 of the law mentions that the “employer has the duty to abstain from contacting workers during rest period, except in cases of force majeure”. Across the OECD, the actual application of this recent right remains to be followed.

Greater flexibility in working hours and workspaces is leading public administrations to rethink their use of office space. Across the OECD, 59% of countries are developing plans to adapt to flexible ways of working, mostly by redesigning current office space or by rethinking the office distribution. 38% of OECD countries are seeking to make greater use of flexible office designs or create shared spaces between departments or organisations (27%). Finland is expecting to use all these plans regarding office space, with COVID-19 reinforcing a pre-existing trend of geographical deconcentration of office space.

Fewer countries are thinking of using flexible ways of working as ways to rethink the office distribution, whether by reducing office space (27% of OECD countries), or relocating offices to other parts of the country (11%). In a context of greater local expectations from citizens, the relocation of office space from expensive capitals to cheaper urban centres allows for closer service delivery, greater capacity to attract talent residing outside of capitals, and operational budget savings, as suggested in Box ‎3.3.

Flexible working arrangements have many potential benefits, though they come with their own specific challenges for both employees and employers. While it is still too early to definitely evaluate the long-term impacts of more public servants making use of more ways to work flexibly, some pointers are emerging.

First, the role of trust clearly emerges as a key enabler of flexible working practices. This may involve supporting managers to adapt long-standing ways of managing teams, shifting from control-based management to trust-based management. For organisations, this may also involve updating performance management frameworks to emphasise outcomes and results. Ensuring effective communication between employees and managers (and their representatives in workplace associations, trade unions, etc.) on evolving work preferences and needs is important to foster constructive discussions.

Second, the effectiveness of flexible ways of working can depend on how much autonomy employees feel they have to make use of them. Rules and regulations ensuring a right to disconnect, for example, may not serve their purpose if employees feel implicit pressure to check emails after working hours. Uptake of part-time work, too, may also not reach its intended purpose if employees – or certain categories of employees, like more men than women – self-select out of using these modalities because of worries about career development.

Third, the trend toward greater individualisation of working preferences and conditions is likely to stay. This points to scope for greater consultation between senior leadership, managers and human resource bodies to develop flexible workforce management policies. Hybrid working arrangements, while popular among many public servants, also have their detractors. In determining future flexible working arrangements, all voices must be heard so that the principles of productivity, engagement and well-being are maintained.

Finally, flexible working arrangements are likely to appeal not just to existing public employees, but to future and prospective candidates. In a crowded and competitive labour market, the public service cannot afford to shoot itself in the foot by rowing back on key elements of flexibility that have come to be taken for granted by the types of in-demand profiles that they seek, such as in the digital and IT sector.


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[12] DGAEP (2021), A adaptação dos modelos de organização do trabalho na Administração Pública Central durante a pandemia COVID-19: Dificuldades e oportunidades.

[2] Edelmann, N., J. Schossboeck and V. Albrecht (2021), “Remote Work in Public Sector Organisations: Employees’ Experiences in a Pandemic Context”, DG.O2021: The 22nd Annual International Conference on Digital Government Research, https://doi.org/10.1145/3463677.3463725.

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[11] Mas, A. and A. Pallais (2017), “Valuing Alternative Work Arrangements”.

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