Why meeting flexible working requests is easier said than done

flexible working
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With Labour proposing a four-day week and unions campaigning for workers to use technology to spend less time in the office, the traditional 9 to 5 is quickly becoming a thing of the past. But as more employees request flexible working, what are the barriers employers face in supporting their needs? Ashleigh Webber reports from a recent roundtable discussion. 

Employees with at least 26 weeks’ service have had the right to request flexible working since 2014. But giving workers the ability to work in ways that suit them, as many are now demanding, is often easier said than done.

The benefits of flexible working for employees, especially for those returning to work after starting a family, are clear. In fact, the latest Office for National Statistics data show that women with dependent children are now more likely to have a full-time job than those without, while the employment rate for women with dependent children continues to rise as their children grow up.

Increasing flexible working opportunities has been hailed as a solution that could dramatically reduce the gender pay gap by enabling new mothers to return to work sooner, and help disabled people or those with long term health conditions remain in work. Many also claim it could improve employee morale by boosting their work-life balance and reducing work-related stress.

But, as a roundtable discussion hosted by Mumsnet Jobs explored, there remain numerous societal and organisational barriers to the widespread adoption of flexible working. In some industries there is still a perception that those who are not at their desks full time are not pulling their weight.

“We often get into really binary thinking, like ‘flexible working’ means ‘part time’,” suggested Anthony Fitzpatrick, head of employee relations and global policy at Aviva. “But actually it doesn’t always mean those things… sometimes it can be a short-term workplace adjustment.”

He is keen to move away from the term ‘flexible working’ and begin calling it ‘smarter working’.

“Part of this is having honesty and trust between the employer and employee. We should be empowering colleagues to make their own decisions and [encouraging others to] understand why they have made them.”

‘Work should be about results’

Filipe Wedemann, associate recruitment adviser at learning firm Pearson, agreed: “With several teams working together [at Pearson], we need to be around each other at busy times. But we trust each other to do their job, so we allow bits of flexibility. Work should be about seeing results, not time spent in the office.”

The ability to work whenever and wherever will be particularly beneficial to parents returning to work. According to Mumsnet Jobs, 73% of parents say having children has made it more difficult to progress in their careers and 63% of women do not feel UK companies are family-friendly.

“It’s just so hard to be a parent and to work, for men and women,” said Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts. “Since starting Mumsnet I’ve been working harder than I’ve ever worked before, but I’ve been working flexibly and have not been feeling undue guilt. We always say to everyone: you never have to miss the school play.”

With the growing recognition that offering more flexibility for parents will make an organisation a more competitive place to work many firms have enhanced their family-friendly policies. Aviva, for example, offers men the same amount of paid parental leave as women, while advertising and market research agency C Space offers parents 10 days’ leave a year if their child is unwell.

Work should be about seeing results, not time spent in the office.” – Filipe Wedemann, Pearson

But flexible working should not be offered only to parents, Fitzpatrick said, because allowing candidates to see something that resonates with each individual can be a valuable recruitment tool. For example, a recent petition called for legislation that would give staff the right to time off if their pet died, while many companies in the US offer “duvet days” that enable staff to take a day off with no questions asked.

Avoid singling parents out

“Dynamics are changing, for example, we now have more stay at home dads. So the last thing we want to do is single out one person over another,” said a senior employee in a high street bank.

If a private members’ bill currently working its way through parliament is taken forward, employers would have to offer flexible working by default for any job unless certain opt-out criteria are met. If this became law, a broader range of people would be able to work in ways that suited their individual circumstances.

Helen Whately, the MP who introduced the bill, claimed just one tenth of jobs paying more than £20,000 are advertised as being flexible.

Hannah Hopper, diversity and inclusion manager at Centrica, agreed it was important to get the balance right when looking at HR policies for parents and other staff. “Younger people or those without children sometimes don’t think flexibility is there and see parents coming in late for various reasons but can’t do the same,” she said.

The company has recently enhanced its leave policy for staff who care for a family member. Workers who register as a carer on its HR system are able to take six weeks’ paid leave, when matched with annual leave, to help them balance their caring responsibilities with work.

“What we don’t want, and what we were finding, was that people [with caring responsibilities] were using all their leave in half a year. They weren’t away and enjoying time with the person they were caring for, they were just sat in a hospital room with them because the other carers who were going into their house were on their holidays,” said Hopper.

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C Space asks all new starters whether there is a day they would prefer to work from home. Giving staff this option means the rest of the team knows who will be in the office and when.

“We’ve got the luxury to do that because we are such a small agency,” said Riannon Seal, the organisation’s recruitment and talent adviser. “What might work is introducing certain days where people should come into the office, which might introduce more structure into the team.”

Unconvinced line managers

Employees often struggle to get their flexible working request approved if the process relies on line manager discretion, many of the discussion’s participants claimed.

According to the TUC, one in three flexible working requests get turned down and “flexi-time” is unavailable to over half (58%) of the UK workforce.

Once you’ve established very good working practices, you need to think about how they can be replicated across your agencies and suppliers.” – Chloe Sweden, Mumsnet

A senior bank employee said she had to adjust her management style when she joined the company and found some staff worked remotely most of the time.

“I have a team of 20 people and four of them work remotely. Initially I struggled with that, but I told myself that it’s on me to be a better manager,” she said.

In some industries there is still the perception that staff are not doing their job if they are not seen at their desks from 9am to 5pm. This culture will only change if senior leaders champion flexible working practices from the top.

“I see on a daily basis how pushed people are, so I really feel for the line managers and middle managers,” said a senior public sector employee. “Some of it will be cultural and they just want people to get the work done and work all hours. They don’t want to say no [to flexible working requests], but they just don’t see how people will be delivering.”

More training on HR policies and support for managers could help ensure flexible working requests are dealt with fairly and consistently.

“I don’t think we do enough for our managers because ultimately they want to do a good job, but sometimes they are paralysed by fear if they do something for one person they will need to do it for another,” suggested Phoebe Chandler, head of people – employee experience at JC Decaux.

But there may be some roles that cannot be done flexibly, such as regulated roles and jobs involving sensitive data. Fitzpatrick said employers “need to explain why things aren’t possible, not just say ‘it’s not’”.

To create a truly flexible workforce, organisations should also be mindful of the impact their expectations have on suppliers’ working patterns. They should not expect them to be available for meetings at a time that could clash with the school run, for example.

“Organisations have a responsibility for their partners as well,” noted Chloe Sweden, head of Mumsnet Work. “Once you’ve established very good working practices, you need to think about how they can be replicated across your agencies and suppliers. You can’t say that your organisation is working flexibly but then say you want to see your agency at 8am for a meeting.”

Whatever flexible working opportunities organisations offer, they need to make sure they are promoted by senior managers and applied fairly, taking into account the needs of staff at different life stages – not just parents.


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