Flexible working: job done? UK businesses and the work-life balancing act

Almost nine out of 10 employers now provide staff with flexible working, according to a report by the British Chambers of Commerce called Work and Life: How business is striking the right balance.

This headline-grabbing finding may sound impressive, but are UK businesses really doing all they can to meet the work-life balance needs of their employees? Is that it – job done?

One employer that has an established flexible working policy, having introduced its first job-share 15 years ago, is HSBC. Sue Jex, head of employee relations and diversity at the bank, says the report’s findings come as little surprise.

“Big employers are providing flexible working already because they know it makes business-sense, and smaller employers are doing it because they are very aware of their employees’ needs,” she says.

However, Jex said there is still much work to be done in many medium-sized businesses. “These firms are too big to have the hands-on approach to flexible working that smaller organisations have, and too small to have a dedicated HR team to organise flexible working like larger companies do,” she says.

Reasons or excuses?

The report also lists the reasons employers gave for not offering flexible working. More than half – 56% – highlighted the difficulty of achieving business growth with a reorganised workload and resources, while 32% cited a desire to be fair to all employees. More than one in five employers cited the administrative burden of new policies as being a barrier to providing flexible working.

According to Sally Low, director of policy and external affairs at the British Chambers of Commerce, even greater flexibility could be achieved if the right support was in place. “Those which aren’t providing flexibility for their staff lack the management confidence to restructure the way they manage their staff. Only advice and support will rectify this,” she says.

However, she warns against further regulation, saying it would only impose a “needless and onerous burden” on employers.

Jex agrees that heavier legislation to pull these organisations into line is not the answer. “This just creates more form-filling and record-keeping,” she says. “What these organisations need are practical tools to help them understand working patterns and match the needs of employees with the needs of the business. Employers need to know how to make flexible working a win-win solution.”

Business benefits

Phil Flaxton, chief executive of Work Wise UK, an initiative promoting flexible working, says the report proves its campaign is working and most employers now understand that flexible working does have a positive impact on business.

“The vast majority of businesses are now reaping the benefits of adopting smarter working practices, with many seeing significant improvements in productivity and employee relations,” he says.

This latest report may show positive headway is being made, but providing flexible working is only half the battle. Employers also need to ensure it is fully embraced and embedded within the culture of their organisation.

A crucial part of this, says Jenny Watson, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, is that staff feel confident enough to make requests for flexible working.

“Flexible working is still tainted with the prospect of ‘career death’, which discourages many people from asking for it. All employees should have the opportunity to work flexibly, without the fear that it could damage their career,” she adds.

Click here to download the full report.

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