White-collar workers are increasingly demanding greater flexibility over where and when they work as employers struggle to fill posts, according to recruiters.

But there is a growing gulf between professionals able to secure autonomy and those in lower-paid jobs who have fewer options.

Although many companies have not yet decided their long-term approach to remote and hybrid working, those that wish to hire may have little choice. HR consultants said that across sectors, from finance and professional services to IT or marketing, vacancies are plentiful and candidates scarce — and most are only willing to move if flexible working is on offer.

“It’s the number one thing they ask as a requirement. There will be certain candidates that won’t even want to go to an interview if they aren’t offering a hybrid opportunity,” said Caroline Copley, a senior manager specialising in finance and accounting at recruiter Robert Half. “People wouldn’t even waste their time . . . if it’s worse than what they’ve got at the moment.”

Bev White, chief executive of Harvey Nash, a specialist in tech recruitment, said: “Flexibility is the big deal now. People are out of love with long commutes and they are willing to sacrifice some salary points for that flexibility. Organisations are going out to battle to bring candidates on board.”

Doug Rode, senior managing director at employment agency Michael Page, also said that most candidates were now looking for hybrid working, and would not consider a role before checking an employer’s approach.

The risk, however, is that this newfound preference will be the preserve of higher-paid professionals — and that the debate will be narrowly focused on where people work, ignoring the need for other forms of flexibility, such as job-sharing, part-time work or compressed and staggered hours.

The majority of UK employees did not work from home even at the height of the lockdowns. For them, the ability to choose their working hours matters more. And while employers are grappling with the challenges of hybrid work, they remain far less open to employees varying their hours.

A report published this week by the consultancy Timewise highlighted a drop since the start of the pandemic in part-time employment; it is now at its lowest level since 2010 as a share of those in work.

The research, conducted by the Institute for Employment Studies, showed part-time workers were both more likely to lose work during lockdowns and slower to return to their normal hours as restrictions eased. Meanwhile, just 8 per cent of vacancies are advertised with part-time options — most of them low-paid and with little autonomy over hours or place of work.

Emma Stewart, Timewise director of development, said that with furlough set to end in September, many part-time workers felt they were “clinging on to jobs that will soon disappear” and could soon be “effectively locked out of work”.

The pandemic had shifted perceptions of flexible working but arrangements still tended to be informal, and depended on seniority and the leverage individuals had with employers, she said.

White-collar recruiters say candidates are increasingly open about asking to vary their hours. Copley, who works mainly with private equity firms and asset managers, said she was about to place a candidate who had made it clear throughout that he needed to pick up his children two or three days a week — echoing others who said such requests were no longer a rarity.

But Stewart said the onus was still “very much on the candidate”, who had to feel confident enough to ask.

“The two-tier labour market between flexible ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ existed before Covid-19,” Timewise warned. “As a result of the pandemic, this gulf is widening.”