Moving from flexible working rights to effective employer practice

2 Oct 2018 | Rosie Gloster, Senior Research Fellow

National Work–Life Week draws our attention to the fit between work and wider lives. In the fifty years that we have been researching employment policy and practice here at IES, there has been significant change in the makeup of the workforce, some of which has led to the need for increased workplace flexibility.

Despite the introduction of the right to request flexible working, questions still remain around how this need for increased flexibility is managed in the workplace and how organisations can foster cultures that encourage employees to feel confident in requesting flexible working. As ‘flexism’ makes the headlines, what can be done to ensure that flexibility works in practice?

Rather than the traditional male bread-winner model of old, dual-earner households are now the norm, and there has been a steady increase in the number of lone parents in work. The increase in the employment rate of women with young children has been influenced by the introduction of maternity rights, changes to the benefits system, and childcare availability and affordability. For example, free childcare places for three- and four-year-olds have contributed to a rise by almost 10 percentage points over the past two decades, from 56 to 65 per cent, in the proportion of mothers in employment who have children aged between three and four.

Elsewhere, the right to request flexible working, which when introduced in 2003 only applied to the parents of children aged under-six, and certain other carers, has since been extended to all employees working for the same employer for at least 26 weeks. In 2013, 40 per cent of employers offering flexible working practices received at least one request to work flexibly in the previous 12 months, the same proportion as in 2007.

The right to request flexible working is being evaluated. As rights to request don’t necessarily lead to take-up, it will be interesting to see the scale of requests and the characteristics of the employees that have been making them.

Beyond the right to request, the government has established the legislative basis for, and is promoting the potential benefits of, workplace flexibility. For example, the Industrial Strategy sets out benefits for employers such as recruiting from a wide pool of individuals; enhancing productivity; and enabling the retention of experienced employees whose circumstances change.

Nonetheless while attitudes are positive, practice is patchy. The fourth work–life balance (WLB) survey[1] suggested a growing acceptance of flexible working among employers with their attitudes being positive. However, flexible working practices were most common in public and voluntary sector organisations, and, irrespective of size, in organisations that had a high proportion of female employees. In addition, while rates of formal flexible-working requests have been increasing since the introduction of the policy in the early 2000s, the WLB survey and CIPD research show that the uptake of many types of flexible working, eg job-sharing or working reduced hours, has plateaued in recent years, despite the extension of the right to request.

Taken together, this suggests that a step-change in how flexibility is managed in the workplace is required: moving to the creation of a culture whereby employees feel confident to request flexibility in the context of enabling working practices. It is also important that these cultures are responsive to the types of flexibility that employees are seeking, as flexible working can take many forms.

Employer- or employee-driven flexible working

There is a key distinction between employer-driven flexible working, where the employer sets the terms, and employee-driven flexible working. The latter can be perceived by some employers as challenging to implement. For example, our recent research with 25 large employers for the Centre for Ageing Better found that whilst there was generally a desire to accommodate employees’ flexible-working requests, there were differences in how readily organisations believed they could accommodate flexible working and/or redesign all jobs within their structure and operations. Some industries and some employers are further along this path than others.

Looking forward, the demand for flexible working looks set to increase. The rise in the state pension age will encourage longer working lives and the preference of flexible work among millennials means that flexibility as to when, where and how we work will be the preferred choice of individuals across the generations.

The current challenge for ensuring the fit between work and wider lives is how flexible working can be accommodated in all industries and for all workers. The government’s Flexible Working Taskforce began meeting in March, and, over the next 18 months, will be investigating the barriers for employers in offering flexible working and for employees in taking up flexible working options. An enabling legislative framework is valuable, but we also need a more imaginative and comprehensive approach to putting flexible working into practice.

What can employers do to move towards flexibility that works in practice?

Based on IES’ extensive research with organisations on flexible working, here are five areas on which employers and HR can focus their efforts.

  1. Flexibility at the point of hiring: signal at recruitment whether you are happy to consider applications on a flexible basis, and where you don’t, ensure that there are solid business reasons for not doing so.
  2. Staff engagement: review flexible working practices by encouraging open communication and consulting with staff over the type of flexibility that would be of most benefit, how this would work in practice, and balance this against business needs.
  3. Effective line management of flexible workers: training and development to ensure that line managers have the skills to manage flexible teams and their performance, managing on outcomes rather than presenteeism.
  4. Role-model flexible working: encourage managers to work flexibly themselves. Managers who work flexibly are more likely to support flexible working within their own team and to understand the benefits and challenges of flexible working.
  5. Effective implementation: make flexible working available to all staff, regardless of age or gender. Meanwhile, technology-enabled flexible working should not impede on the boundaries between work and life.

[1] The updated survey investigating management and working practices is being undertaken at the moment.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.

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