Flexible working: Is it really such a stretch?

In this guest post, Matt Hawkins, Campaigns Officer at Gingerbread, reports on the online discussion of flexible working  hosted by Gingerbread earlier this week.

Single parents are often the sole earners and childcare providers in their family, so flexible working can be a lifeline in helping them to get a decent job whilst meeting their care responsibilities. And we know that adopting flexible working policies brings big benefits to employers, helping them to recruit and retain an engaged workforce.

So why, in 2014, are flexible work opportunities so scarce? How do we move part time jobs out of the low paid, low skilled sectors? How do we finally find a cure for the 9-5 obsession and embrace alternative working options?

As part of Gingerbread’s campaign to Make it work for single parents, we organised an online discussion to try and answer some of those questions. The discussion brought together some of the leading voices in the field: Siobhan Endean, National Officer for Equalities at Unite; Jonathan Swan, Policy and Research Manager at Working Families; Hannah Murphy, Policy Adviser at the CBI; and Nicola Kilvington, Head of Strategy, Performance, and Information at Camden Council.

Grounding the discussion with an overview of the current provision of flexible work options in the UK, the panel agreed that these could be described, at best, as “patchy”. Jonathan reported that Working Families hear from over 3000 people every year who have been badly treated at work because they put in a request to work flexibly. Many of these calls come from women who were dismissed after seeking to return from maternity leave on a part-time basis.

Part of the reason for this, said Siobhan, is the lack of any real legislative framework to help spread and support flexible work practices. Right to request is only available after 6 months’ employment and outside of that the regulations are fairly limited. Where flexible working practices have spread in recent years they have often been a very one-sided affair. The growth in zero-hour contracts, both Siobhan and Jonathan agreed, is a largely unwelcome trend. Whilst on the surface they appear to be “flexible”, that flexibility lies mainly with the employer with little or no rights being offered to the employee.

It became clear from the discussion that what is needed in Britain is a cultural shift away, as Hannah put it, from “outdated assumptions about ‘putting in the hours’ in the office” to one that embraces the benefits of flexible working, both for employees and employers.

The problem is: how do we achieve such a cultural change?

On the one hand, government legislation can boost the rights of workers to request flexible work and set the gold standard that employers are expected to live up to. Siobhan would like to see jobs advertised as flexible from day one. This would help to tackle the problem that many employees don’t ask for flexible work because they’re worried their employer will disapprove of such a request. Nicola emphasised the role that public sector employers, such as local councils, can play in providing a leading example to their local businesses and contractors of how flexible working can operate in practice.

In addition, Nicola pointed out that there are organisations out there dedicated to offering advice and support to employers who want to shift their business structure over to a more flexible model. These organisations, such as the Timewise Foundation, can assist by sharing best practice and linking up organisations who are all working towards greater flexibility.

Yet, as Hannah pointed out, employers continue to cite their own objections to flexible working and these cannot be ignored. Employers often feel they are being asked to perform a difficult juggling act: on the one hand meeting the needs of employees that apply for flexi-time whilst making sure that this doesn’t put additional strain on those that don’t.

The panel agreed that tackling these kinds of difficulties depends on communication. Where there is a workforce union in operation then they can negotiate with employers to find the best solution that works for everyone. Nicola also stated that there is a need for employers to improve their reporting processes so that lessons can be learned from the success, or otherwise, of flexible work requests that have been granted in the past. Siobhan added that the Acas guide on flexible working is a particularly useful resource and that she’d like to see more of the same being produced by central government.

Ultimately, the panel acknowledged that a great deal of work will need to be done to move from the standard 9-5 hours culture to a more flexible model. That shift is going to depend on a mix of government leadership, improved communication channels between employers and employees, and the sharing of best practice between organisations. Each ingredient will help us to travel in the right direction and move towards a tipping point where flexible work becomes an everyday part of work in Britain.



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