Making flexible working the default

Blog posts

1 Dec 2021

Astrid Allen, Research Fellow

The start of advent brings with it the last chance to respond to government’s open consultation on flexible working proposals (which closes today).

Legislation passed in 2014 gave employees the right to request flexible working after 26 weeks with their employer. In those regulations, government defined flexible working as a way of working that ‘suits an employee’s needs’. This, rather one-sided, view of flexible working was underscored by a comprehensive list of reasons as to why employers may reject an application.

These were:

  • Extra costs that will damage the business.
  • The work cannot be reorganised among other staff.
  • People cannot be recruited to do the work.
  • Flexible working will affect quality and performance.
  • The business will not be able to meet customer demand.
  • There’s a lack of work to do during the proposed working times.
  • The business is planning changes to the workforce.

Rather than focusing on the benefits of flexible working, the legislation intrinsically encouraged employers to see the difficulties it presented.

The government wants to shift that position and make flexible working the ‘default’. However, the suggested legislative changes are more incremental than fundamental. The proposals consider making the right to request flexible working applicable from day one of employment, allowing for more frequent requests, reducing response times and requiring employers to consider alternatives when turning down requests. These changes, if they come to pass, may make flexible working requests more common but they will not make flexible working the default. That requires a cultural shift that cannot be dictated by changes in policy.

The Covid-19 pandemic has seen some shifts in current practice, with working from home becoming the norm for many. During the first lockdown, when this was mandated across the UK, 47% of the workforce worked from home. However, there was/is (homeworking is still encouraged in the devolved nations) nothing flexible about this. Workers are without a choice. What it has done, is open the debate. While some workers may be keen to return to ‘normal’ ways of working, more commonly they want a hybrid model. In our research for Work After Lockdown we found that 73% of respondents wanted to work in this way. Many employers have grasped the nettle and reduced their requirements for office-based working and closed office space. A BBC survey found that 43 out of 50 of the UK’s largest employers have no plans for full-time office return.

It must be remembered, that working from home is a luxury for much of the workforce, who are unable to perform their roles in this way. Care, construction, education, retail, leisure and hospitality are just some of those industries where staff often need to be in specific locations. For them, flexible working may mean having the opportunity to work part-time or have a choice of shift patterns. Furthermore, IES research exploring the impact of Covid-19 lockdowns on part-time workers has shown that it has been disproportionately negative. Part-timers were less likely to return to normal working hours, and less likely to hang on to roles during lockdowns, than full-timers.

The current reality is that flexible working continues to be seen as a way of helping women remain in the workplace while juggling parental responsibilities. However, TUC research found that half of all requests for flexible working from working mothers are turned down or only partially accepted. Where flexible working is made available, opportunities for progression can be limited. So, even where people are working flexibly, the benefits may be outweighed by the discrimination they experience. This results in extensive latent demand for flexible working, with many people reluctant to make requests. The only way to resolve this is to make flexible working the norm for everyone in the workplace.

Opening the flood gates can be a daunting prospect for employers. Despite 87% of people wanting to work flexibly, recent research from Timewise shows that only one in four jobs are currently advertised as flexible. Employers are concerned that staff working flexibly has its downsides. It can add pressure to colleagues who are expected to ‘fill the gaps’, it can create perceived inequity among employees and it will often bring additional costs and pressures on management to coordinate flexible working opportunities and offer an increased number and variety of employment contracts. It is not, however, impossible and many employers have found their efforts are well rewarded. So how can more be persuaded to take the plunge?

I recently attended a seminar where I heard from employers who are benefiting from increased flexible working among their staff. When I asked them how more managers could be persuaded to do the same, their response was three-fold:

1)      Senior staff should act as role models and demonstrate that flexible working works, by incorporating flexibility into the way they operate.

2)      The business case for flexible working should be promoted, by demonstrating the cost benefits that can accrue.

3)      Last, but not least, it is important to highlight the costs associated with not offering flexible working. Without these opportunities some workers will not be able, and others will not want, to work for an employer. Telling the stories of why people leave an organisation due to a lack of flexible working can be powerful.

Crucially, offering flexible working opportunities will increase recruitment options for employers who are finding it hard to fill high levels of current vacancies. Those employers who are genuinely making flexible working the default will have the competitive edge in attracting and retaining the people they need. 

We must work with employers to evaluate and promote why and how to implement flexible working. In its current consultation documentation the government recognises that legislation has its limitations, stating that ‘making flexible working part of the workplace DNA is about much more than just the regulatory framework’. As such, they are planning a separate call for evidence on the subject. I hope that, with the support of employers, IES will be able to contribute and help more employees, and their organisations, maximise the benefits of flexible working.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.