Flexible parents or flexible workers?

The flexible working debate looks set to heat up as the government conducts a consultation on whether and how to extend the right to request flexible working from its current catchment group – parents with children under the age of six or disabled children under the age of 18 – to a wider group of workers. After all, if flexible working is good for business and can help to drive up performance, shouldn’t every class of worker enjoy the right to request flexible ways of working?

Reviewing the evidence on this last point does indeed show that the introduction of flexible working practices by some firms has saved costs on recruitment and retention and helped establish companies as employers of choice. It has also reduced absenteeism – often the evidence of hidden conflict within organisations. Some small firms have saved up to 250,000 through such practices and BT reckons that such practices boost productivity by nearly a third.

Of course flexible working comes in all forms – part-time working, job sharing, homeworking, career breaks, flexitime, nine-day fortnights, time banking, annualised hours and term-time working to name a few. Much of such practice has arisen informally and is controlled by the organisation. It is not codified or subject to legislative fiat. Doing so and extending a right to request to all groups of workers in ‘big bang’ fashion would arguably regulate in ways that many people running UK organisations would resist.

The government wants flexible working opportunities to exist right across the workforce as they believe it will boost productivity. And the latest evidence shows that over the next three years one in two workers expects to be working flexibly in some way or another. Moreover employers – two-thirds at least – are aware of the right-to-request regulations. Since the regulations were introduced, 14% of employees had registered a request, with an 81% success rate either wholly or partially. So there is both awareness and acceptance of the flexible working regulations across all industries and sectors.

But where next? It makes sense for others to be included in the catchment group, but beyond that regulation will increasingly run into the sands of employer resistance. Far better to reinforce the message that flexible forms of working drive up performance. The introduction of the Operating and Financial Review regulations, for example, will shape the way firms report their people management practices and give a renewed focus to how they deal with and value their staff. These are the sort of mechanisms that engage the market better, and then market forces deliver what regulation cannot.

Flexible working is the goal for most workers and offering flexible working options as a right in some form or another to parents is a sensible step in the right direction. The economy needs more mothers to remain in the labour market along with more older people and other so-called atypical groups. The right-to-request has been an important first step. The opportunity now exists for firms to think imaginatively and to reap the benefits of a flexible approach – both for their business and their employees.

Will Hutton
Chief executive,
The Work Foundation

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