Flexible working extension delay is short-term approach

Lord Mandelson’s political instincts are legendary, and his determination to make a major impact immediately as the new business secretary is clear for all to see. But his proposal that the extension of the right to request flexible working to parents of older children should be delayed because of the current economic situation is wrong-headed short-termism of the worst kind.

This thinking sends out completely the wrong message it assumes that flexible working is a burden on business, and the kind of charitable extra that can be cut back in tougher times. The reality is that flexible working can deliver competitive advantage by improving employee engagement and attracting talented people to organisations that otherwise might remain outside the workforce.

Recognising that your employees have lives to balance with their work, as part of a wider commitment to the smart management of people, can deliver what is commonly known as high performance working. It can create a dedicated workforce characterised by a commitment to ‘going the extra mile’. CIPD research shows that part-time and flexible workers are happier, more engaged with their work, and therefore more likely to perform better and be more productive. This is exactly what hard pressed employers need in tougher times.

The message sent out by delaying the extension of flexible working because of the downturn is the only thing that will get you through is more long-hours, nose-to-the-grindstone presenteeism. This does a huge disservice to the many thousands of people already working part-time – particularly working mothers and carers.

The commendably light-touch way in which the existing right to request legislation has been drafted already makes it easy for employers to decline requests where granting them would conflict with business priorities. That is as it should be. But what the legislation – and the welcome proposed extension to the parents of older children – does is encourage employers to think about whether the business can achieve its objectives while also opening itself up to people with plenty to give to the workplace, given the opportunity to balance work with their home lives.

If Mandelson is happy to say that employers would be unduly burdened in tough economic times by extending the right to request to the parents of older children, what does that say to organisations already employing, or considering employing, the parents of younger children? What kind of message does it send to the colleagues of flexible workers about the value they add to the business? And what message does it send to parents or potential parents weighing-up their prospects in the labour market?

Either there is a business case for flexible working, adapted to meet the requirements of the business, or there isn’t. If the government says it may be too burdensome in tough times, then does that mean they think it is burdensome in the better times too – but they just happen to think businesses can afford it then? That is not what we believe, nor is it what the evidence shows. CIPD members tell us they don’t see any practical problems with extending the right to request.

Mandelson’s contribution to this debate risks turning the clock back, and doing far more than just affecting the parents of older children. It runs the risk of doing real damage to the smart work agenda, in which employers focus on maximising the contribution people can make, rather than simply the number of hours they can be compelled to remain chained to their desks.

Fortunately, as our research in this area shows, there are many employers already going far beyond the legislative minimum, not out of charity or because times were good and they were able to throw caution to the wind, but because they know their approach is good for business. The research also specifically shows that many small firms are outstandingly good at implementing flexible working.

Much employment law is burdensome, but Mandelson has picked the wrong legislation to target here. His intervention has more potential to damage the UK’s longer term approaches to work and productivity than it has to spare small businesses from the ravages of the global economic crisis.

Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser, CIPD

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