On the surface, a proposed day one right to request flexible working seems desirable, but there is no guarantee flexiblity will be granted. It is unlikely to change ingrained negative attitudes towards flexible working, Molly Johnson-Jones writes.
This week the UK government announced that it is committed to passing the Flexible Working Bill, which has garnered significant attention and support since a day one right to request flexible working was mooted a few years ago. This comes after the pandemic first showed us that office-based work isn’t the only option, and offers important recognition for flexible working as a sought after and increasingly mainstream alternative. But the proposed legislation isn’t without its flaws.
The proposed legislation, which is currently working its way through parliament, is set to give workers the right to request flexible working from their first day of employment, rather than after 26 weeks as it currently stands. But it won’t require employers to grant flexible working requests. Instead, employers will simply have to consult with employees who make requests and respond within two months. Whether or not businesses choose to accept or reject their requests is still entirely their own decision.
Flexible working requests
While some might think, “nothing ventured, nothing gained”, scores of workers who are reliant on different ways of working would strongly disagree. I count myself among them.
Flexibility supports employees with disabilities
Many workers are simply unable to commute to offices, let alone work there for five days a week whilst adhering to rigid working hours. They include workers with disabilities, caring responsibilities, health conditions, and many others. These people will be left in hugely precarious positions if they start jobs in good faith that their flexible working needs will be accommodated, only to have their requests turned down or left hanging.
This isn’t an entirely new problem. A lack of transparency around different ways of working has plagued corporate culture for years. This enables companies to lay false claims to flexibility and make vague offers on job adverts, only to reveal their true colours much later down the line. Sometimes it turns out that flexibility is only offered in line with tenure. Other times it might be that the remote working advertised is limited to one day a month, or that bosses put meetings in at times which prevent workers from actually being able to work supposedly flexible hours.
All of this means that giving people the right to request flexible working from their first day of employment won’t make a jot of difference for workers who start new roles at companies that don’t take flexibility seriously. Instead, the proposed legislation risks further misleading new starters and fails to hold employers to account.
The complications don’t end there. Employees whose flexible working requests are turned down aren’t only at risk of being stuck in jobs that don’t accommodate their needs; they’re also at risk of being stuck in tense working relationships. Passive aggressive notes received by civil servants who were found to be working from home against Jacob Rees Mogg’s advice, and revolts at the likes of Apple and the New York Times over back-to-office mandates, are a taste of what’s in store for bosses and teams who clash over flexible work.
Giving people the right to request flexible working from their first day of employment won’t make a jot of difference for workers who start new roles at companies that don’t take flexibility seriously.”
But the solution is not to require all companies to offer fully flexible working hours and remote work year-round. This isn’t realistic, nor is it helpful for the many workers who still want the option of working in traditional offices surrounded by their team. What works for one team member will be different for the next; and the policies that can be accommodated and sustained in a genuine way will also vary hugely between businesses.
What we need is to empower workers to find employers whose priorities and preferences align with their own. To achieve this, we need legislation that obligates companies to be transparent and upfront about where they stand on flexible work – and not to pay lip service to flexibility, only to let employees down. This way, individual workers can access roles which meet their individual needs. And when this is the case, the end result is always the same: staff who are able to thrive and who want to stay.