Unlocking flexible working

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Silhouette of a person and a dog walking outside © Photo by Michael Kucharski from Unsplash

The pandemic has driven a sharp surge in remote and hybrid working, increasing from 5.7% of workers in February 2020 to a UK average of 31.5% during the first national lockdown. This remained high into 2021, with an estimated 30% of workers nationwide working from home in December. Against this backdrop, Government has proposed reforms to flexible working regulations which aim to enable a shift in culture so that flexible working becomes the default. However, the proposed reforms could actually create further barriers to flexible working. We responded to the public consultation around the proposed reforms last month. This article reflects the key points we made on:

  • the proposal to reduce the waiting time to request flexible work, and
  • the review of business reasons for refusal.

It features stories from two people we spoke with during our research: Laura, whose experience of remote working has supported her mental wellbeing and Sarah, whose experience highlights the role that flexible work may increasingly play in staff retention.

The right to request flexible work is not a right to have it

Currently, workers have a right to request flexible working arrangements after they have been with their employer for 26 weeks. The Government has proposed reforming the rules to allow employees to request flexible work from the day their start their new job. While this is a positive signal that Government wants to improve access to flexibility, as long as legislation offers workers a right to request rather than a right to have access to flexible work, substantial barriers to take-up remain.

Without an entitlement to flexible work, candidates and new starters may be discouraged from requesting a flexible working arrangement while they are on probation.

While employers can refuse flexible working requests, informal discussions with management may dissuade workers from submitting a formal request. For example, a survey of working mothers by the TUC in 2021 showed that 42% of respondents thought there was no point in asking for flexible working as it would just be turned down. Line manager and employer behaviour play a key role in creating or lowering barriers to flexible working, particularly for specific worker groups.

Remote working during the pandemic brought some workers real benefits to their wellbeing and work-life balance, which they are not keen to give up now that work from home guidance is coming to an end., Last year saw a 50% increase in the number of tribunal cases appealing refused flexible working requests. In a context where flexibility is increasingly important to workers, employers who don’t proactively offer longer term flexibility risk losing valued staff.

This is illustrated by Sarah’s experiences. Sarah is a working mum from Manchester who has worked for the same large security company for 17 years. When Covid-19 hit, all employees were asked to work from home for the first time.

Sarah values the calmer home environment in which she is better able to focus. She also appreciates not having to commute, which has been a huge help in terms of saving on childcare costs and which has given her two extra hours every day with her young daughter. However, Sarah’s company wants all staff to return to the office full time. Sarah told us:

“the majority of staff are back two days a week now but the company has said it wants everyone back to the office five days a week — it’s quite set in its ways and says it wants to ‘see its staff’ and drive away from remote working.”

As a result, Sarah says staff turnover has peaked like she has ‘never known before’ and she is looking for a new job too:

“I like my job, I like the people I work with. I’m comfortable after 17 years of service and I’m in a good position where people do come to me to ask me things. I’m not unhappy at all in my work but it’s a ‘hard no’ from managers when it comes to remote working.”

Government has an important role to play in signposting employers to good practice. Most importantly, more should be done to address barriers to the take-up of flexible work.

We recommend that flexible working is made the default position for all employees, with flexible options included in all job adverts, unless employers have a sound business reason for an exemption.

Some business reasons for refusal should be revisited

At the moment, there are 8 reasons an employer can legally refuse a request for flexible work. Two of these are related to performance and are no longer fit for purpose.

Work Foundation research has shown that concerns around productivity and performance often stem from legacy attitudes around the role of management, with some managers fearing that workers will only be productive when they are actively monitored. The pandemic experience of remote working thoroughly confounded this expectation. Personal productivity among those who shifted to remote working has reportedly largely remained stable. Furthermore, research has shown that those who had pre-pandemic experience of remote working retained higher levels of productivity, indicating that initial dips in productivity resulting from a shift in the way of working will be resolved with practice.

If personal performance issues do arise following a change in working pattern, this should be addressed by appropriate performance management practice.

One example of adjusting to a new mode of work and realising its benefits, is offered by Laura, 36, who works for a local authority in the North West. She experiences anxiety and depression and says she has grown to value remote working through the pandemic and has developed coping strategies for managing her anxiety which make her far more productive at home. She can get overwhelmed while she’s working, but finds having her dog close by has been a huge source of comfort:

“At work there wasn’t a place to step away from your desk – we ate our lunch in front of our screens – so you couldn’t escape it. At home I can lie down with my dog for a few minutes or go for a dog walk at lunchtime.”

Laura prefers to work from home but sees the benefit of a hybrid approach — something her employer is implementing. She is returning to the office for two days a week which she says will benefit her in terms of training and learning from colleagues.

Over the coming period, organisations will likely need a degree of experimentation to get new ways of working right, whether this is remote and hybrid, or any of the other forms of flexible working, such as compressed hours, job share or flexitime. This means employers and managers should be clear about the outcomes they want to achieve, and consult and co-design approaches that work, together with their workforce.

Alongside reforming flexible working law, it is important Government address employers’ concerns over the potential impact of flexible work on productivity and performance. This should involve signposting employers and managers to good practice and investing in dedicated training for managers through initiatives such as Help to Grow. But as the world of work is changing, employers need a coherent offer of support and a commitment to continual improvement in management and leadership practice.

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