Since the onset of the pandemic, professionals whose work can be done at home — including so-called knowledge workers — have enjoyed new levels of flexibility.

Unfortunately, flexibility doesn’t come so easily to medical professionals, delivery people, cashiers, assembly line employees, construction workers, bank tellers and the many other types of workers who need to show up in person. Many front-line jobs, in fact, have become less flexible due to widespread staff shortages.

But flexibility and front-line work don’t have to be mutually exclusive, says Aaron Rolka, a sales strategy at Indeed. “Workers know they have leverage now and are standing up for themselves a little bit more than they ever have,” he says. “If employers want to thrive, they’re going to have to keep their employees happy.” 

As employee expectations change, and as companies face a new imperative to emphasize wellbeing, Indeed asked experts and leaders for suggestions on how to make front-line and other in-person work more flexible — not just the “where” of work, but the “when” and “how.” Exploring these new options is still a work in progress, but it’s essential for making sure more people in more professions are able to reap some of the flexibility gained by knowledge workers during the past two and a half years.

Get smarter about shifts

A first step toward making work better and more flexible for front-line workers? Improving shift management. 

“Reliable shifts, with advance notice, let people plan their lives,” says Nikki Slowey, director and co-founder of U.K.-based Flexibility Works. “Managing your home life when doing shifts is tough enough, but it becomes even more stressful if you don’t always know when you are working and your shifts can change at the last minute. If an employer can offer this reassurance to their people, it removes a whole lot of stress.”

Increasingly, shift management is facilitated by technology. Dedicated scheduling software and staffing platforms (like Snap Schedule or Trusted Health’s healthcare-focused platform, Trusted Works) can give employees more say in when and where they work, along with the ability to swap shifts more easily — which is where flexibility comes in.

By simplifying last-minute recruiting for shifts, says Danielle Bowie, vice president of clinical strategy and transformation at Trusted Health, shift scheduling software allows hospitals to avoid being caught short-staffed, especially for critical care needs. That reduces stress for everyone involved, including the central staffing office and hiring managers. 

Make time for time away from work

Work-life flexibility initiatives that are becoming more popular in the corporate world, such as the 9/80 work schedule — in which working longer hours earns an employee an extra day off in a two-week period — are slowly crossing over into front-line work.

“There’s a stronger focus on the importance of personal time in all sectors now,” Rolka says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if more companies of all kinds have something like the 9/80 model in place in the next few years.”

It’s also a mistake to assume that no aspect of front-line work can be done at home. Some frontline roles do have elements of desk-based work, such as administrative tasks. And companies can re-evaluate which tasks can happen virtually; that was an early lesson of the pandemic as more doctor’s visits, for example, moved to video conferences. 

Offer a chance to step away for a few hours

While people who work at home can often slip out to see a doctor or pick up a child, that can be challenging for on-premises workers. But at U.K. car retailer Arnold Clark, employees can ask for paid flexible leave, or time off for appointments and life events. Separate from annual leave, it’s time off that’s not earned or accrued but can be requested and taken when things come up. 

“Employees can request up to three hours at a time from their workday to tend to the commitments that matter to them, such as a medical or personal appointment or school pick-up,” says Lynne McBurney, Arnold Clark’s group head of people.

Mollie Hampson, a customer service representative at the retailer, steps away for doctor’s appointments and dog-walking. Recently, she left work to share a meal with family visiting from Canada. “I booked a couple of hours off to make the most of the occasion and spend more time with relatives I hadn’t seen for several years,” she says.

Embrace financial flexibility

Specialized software grants another kind of flexibility: on-demand and early pay. Many major fast-food and retail groups use on-demand pay software to allow employees immediate access to earnings. Apps such as DailyPay and Dayforce Wallet can also show workers their earnings during their shifts.

In other words, it can be payday any day. “That’s absolutely something that people want,” Indeed’s Rolka says. “They’ll even switch jobs for it.” The days of having to wait two weeks or more for your next paycheck? That’s a thing of the past for some employees. It’s about more than just flexibility — it also gives workers the power and control to access their paychecks on their own terms. 

Promote upskilling for future career flexibility 

Providing access to upskilling also gives employees more control over their futures — and opens doors. Since February, the retailer Macy’s, through a partnership with Guild Education, has offered a debt-free education benefit for its more than 100,000 employees. The program, open to salaried and hourly employees in the U.S., includes courses for high school completion, college prep, English language learning, and associate and bachelor’s degrees. Macy’s covers 100 percent of tuition, books and fees.

“We want colleagues to actively learn at every stage of their career journey,” says Russell Boyd, Macy’s group vice president of human resources. That’s thinking about flexibility in a big-picture way — how to give people options now and in the future.