Flexible working should be offered by default for any job and employers should “opt out” if a job cannot be done flexibly, according to an MP.
Conservative MP Helen Whately introduced a flexible working bill in Parliament this week which, if taken forward, would make flexible working the norm in employment contracts and require employers to advertise positions as suitable for flexible working unless certain conditions are met.
Although the right to request flexible working was introduced in 2014, just 9.8% of jobs paying more than £20,000 are advertised as being flexible, Whately told MPs yesterday. Currently the onus is on employees to ask their employer whether they can work flexibly.
“What if we flip the question and ask whether a job cannot be done flexibly? How many more employers would find that actually it did not make a difference where or when a piece of work was done, as long as it was done?” Whately asked.
She recognised that many jobs needed to be done from a specific place at a specific time, so her bill would require employers to set out reasons why a job could not be done flexibly.
“We know how powerful the psychology of the opt-out is, compared with that of the opt-in. Pensions auto-enrolment has successfully reversed the decline in the number of people saving into a workplace pension – 10 million more people are now saving for their old age thanks to the policy. Let us apply that same principle to flexible working, and ask employers to opt out of flexibility,” she asked MPs.
Introducing the private members’ bill yesterday, she said 42% of women work part time – which is a major contributor to the gender pay gap. Many of those jobs could be full time, flexible jobs, she argued.
Many men also want to work flexibly, “Forty-seven per cent of fathers say that they would consider a demotion to a less stressful job if it enabled them to spend more time with their families. That would be a huge potential loss of productivity, but it could be prevented if more men could work flexibly. However, men are less likely to make a request for flexible working, and are more likely to have a request denied.”
Employers that have introduced flexible working found it has increased flexible working and reduced costs associated with office space, said Matt Weston, MD at recruitment consultancy Robert Half UK.
How many more employers would find that actually it did not make a difference where or when a piece of work was done, as long as it was done/” – MP Helen Whately
“For employers, introducing a flexible working initiative can provide a host of benefits. It can widen the hiring pool to candidates that may live outside of a realistic commuting distance and in some cases, prove to be the deciding factor in getting their preferred candidate over the line. We are seeing more professionals today prioritise their work-life balance and seek out businesses which offer flexibility to achieve this.”
It could also allow older workers to stay in employment longer by allowing them to balance caring responsibilities or the management of health conditions that force some people out of work before they reach State Pension age.
Patrick Thomson, senior programme manager, fulfilling work, at the Centre for Ageing Better said: “ONS data out today shows older workers continue to be the fastest growing age group, so we can’t afford to wait on this. There were a quarter of a million more over-50s in work last year.
“But we know many people struggle with inflexible working practices that can result them leaving work before they are ready. That’s bad for them as individuals, impacting their earnings and social connections, and bad for the UK economy as employers lose out on the skills and experience older workers can bring.”
Paul Avis, marketing director at insurer Canada Life Group, said employers need to address the demands of a multi-generational workforce to gain and retain the best talent.
“Helen Whately MP’s proposed bill to make flexible working hours default is clear evidence that times are changing.
“Three quarters (77%) of employees state that flexible working has improved their productivity. It enables employees to work in a way that suits them, creating a happy, healthy and engaged workforce which is more efficient and therefore productive,” he said.
The bill will receive its second reading today (17 July), but like with many other private members’ bills it is unlikely to become law unless it receives government backing.