Category Archives: Flexible Working

Getting flexible about flexible working

By Richard Dunstan, Workflex blog editor

British workers want flexible working – but only 6% of job ads offer it.

So ran the headline in the Guardian earlier this month, as it reported new research by the Timewise consultancy revealing that more than 14 million British workers – almost half the working population – would like (more)  flexibility in their working hours or location. Yet, despite advances in technology and substantial changes in how and were people work, analysis by Timewise of 3.5 million UK-based job vacancies found that less than one in ten of advertised new jobs offer both decent pay and the opportunity to work flexibly.

The research found that the proportion of jobs advertised with flexible working options varies considerably between regions, from sector to sector, and depending on the job role. Candidates looking for a flexible job have relatively greater opportunities in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the north of England, while jobs within the engineering, manufacturing and creative industries rank the lowest in terms of flexible working options.

Urging employers to “use the F-word” when designing new job roles and advertising vacancies, co-author and Timewise CEO Karen Mattison said:

The world of work has experienced a revolution – technological advances and recent legislation [such as the right to request flexible working] have facilitated a huge growth in flexible working, yet this has not been reflected in in hiring practices. Businesses are missing out, as they consistently fail to realise just how how important flexibility is to people looking for a new role. It’s time to reboot the way we recruit in Britain.

Here at Working Families, we couldn’t agree more. Despite great progress in both the law and employer best practice, negative assumptions about flexible and family-friendly working persist. Reduced-hours working is heavily gendered and all too often viewed by managers as a lack of commitment, with senior roles and flexible working wrongly held to be incompatible. As a result, and as highlighted previously on this blog, there are simply too few good quality part-time or otherwise flexible, putting single parents and parents of disabled children at particular disadvantage. Furthermore, as recent research by think tank IPPR has concluded, the “concentration of part-time work outside of high-level jobs may increase the tendency for women to work in occupations below their skill level”.

That is why, during the General Election campaign, we urged all the political parties to increase the supply of good quality, flexible jobs by adopting a ‘flexible by default’ approach to job design and recruitment in the public sector. This would ensure that all jobs in central and local government are advertised on a flexible basis unless there is a specific, good business reason not to. Camden Council and others are already blazing a trail in this regard, demonstrating how flexible working can “help solve problems of family worklessness as well as improve workforce performance and efficiency”.

We also suggested that new ministers should act and recruit business leaders as ‘flexible working’ champions, and that they should encourage private sector employers to ‘use the F-word’ from the outset by adopting our Happy to talk flexible working logo and strapline in their recruitment process.


The logo and strapline are the result of work by the Promoting Flexible Working to Private Sector Employers Working Group (PSWG) for the Department for Work & Pensions . Led by Sarah Jackson, CEO of Working Families, the PSWG brought together employer bodies, the TUC and recruiters to find practical ways of delivering cultural change, outside the legislative process.

Too few jobs are advertised flexibly, and we know that employers who only advertise their vacancies on a full-time basis may be fishing from a very narrow talent pool. The strapline is intended to encourage employers to think about job design and flexibility before recruitment, and to give potential applicants the confidence to ask about alternative work patters at the selection stage.

We realise that putting a logo on a job ad isn’t the whole story. So we’ve also produced some simple guidance about job design to help employers consider what the job really needs and what type of flexible working might work best.

But being Happy to Talk is a great start!


Off balance: parents of disabled children and paid work

By Richard Dunstan, Workflex blog editor

Since 2012, the issue of affordable childcare has risen rapidly up the political agenda, and seems set to be a key battleground in the run-up to the General Election on 7 May. All three main UK parties will include a ‘childcare offer’ in their manifesto, and all three routinely stress the importance of paid work – including higher maternal employment – to tackling poverty and other social ills, such as mental ill-health. In short, there is broad political consensus that all parents who wish to work should be able to do so.

However, if achieving any kind of work-life balance is a serious challenge for many  parents – and recent research by the Family & Childcare Trust and a survey of parents by 4Children confirm that it most certainly is – then it’s a challenge that parents of children with a disability or special needs face in spades.

I would love to have paid work, to allow us to do more to help our son and for ourselves as a family, but the flexibility required just isn’t available. That is why I had to give up my job. Mother of disabled three year-old.

The need for my wife and I to split all our available leave to cover our caring responsibilities means that we rarely have any time-off together. Employed father of disabled 15 year-old.

Becoming the parent of a disabled child is rarely a matter of personal choice – it can happen to anyone, at any time, not just at the time of birth. One day you have a healthy toddler – and the next day he is struck down and left disabled by one of childhood’s rare but vicious illnesses, such as meningitis. Or one day your teenager is knocked off her bike by a truck, and never walks again.

Such unexpected events happen, every day of every week – and their shock can hit families with tremendous force. Knocked off balance and forced to learn a whole new language of medication, treatment and care, it can take time for families to make the adjustments that, in the long-run, will enable them to weather the storm that has broken over their heads.

Off balance, a new Working Families report based on our survey of over 900 parents of disabled children, illustrates both the extent to which such parents value the opportunity to work – for economic, social and other reasons – and the enormous challenge they face in combining their especially demanding caring responsibilities with paid work.

I would love to get back into paid work. I get depression from being stuck at home. Mother of disabled seven year-old.

The great majority of those parents currently not in paid work gave up work specifically to care for their disabled child, but nine out of ten would now like to return to paid work at some level. However, four out of ten have been out of work for at least six years, making it much harder for them to re-enter the labour market. And all but a small minority say that their caring responsibilities would limit them to part-time or (highly) flexible work. Yet there is an acute shortage of quality, part-time or otherwise flexible vacancies.

Of those in work, two-thirds have refrained from seeking promotion, declined promotion, or accepted demotion in order to be able to balance work and their caring responsibilities.

Combining work and caring is very challenging. There is never any flexibility around the timing of my son’s hospital and other appointments. I just need to drop everything and be there. Employed mother of disabled two year-old.

Seven out of ten parents describe finding suitable, affordable childcare as ‘very difficult’ or ‘impossible’, with as many as one in two relying heavily or exclusively on ‘free’ childcare provided by family or friends. There is clearly a significant lack of specialist childcare capable of meeting the sometimes complex needs of disabled children, and even where it is available it is often significantly more expensive than that for non-disabled children. Almost one in three of in-work parents who pay for their childcare are paying more than £10 per hour – more than twice the national average hourly cost.

Only one local provider offers childcare suitable for my son, but at £16 per hour this is far too expensive. Out of work mother of disabled one year-old.

However, to date, none of the three UK main political parties has explicitly acknowledged this especially harsh ‘childcare crunch’ and other major barriers to paid work faced by parents of disabled children – let alone developed specific policies aimed at lowering these barriers within their policy programme. This has to change.

Off balance calls on all political parties to commit to:

  • Creating a statutory right to a period of adjustment leave, to enable families to weather relatively short-term life crises such as the onset of disability of a partner, parent or child, or other major change in their caring responsibilities, without having to give up work. Cost analysis carried out for Working Families by management consultants Oliver Wyman indicates that a legal right to a six-week period of adjustment leave for parents of disabled children could generate a net gain to the economy of £500 million per year.
  • Adopting a flexible by default approach to job design and recruitment in the public sector, so that all jobs in central and local government are advertised on a flexible basis unless there is a specific, good business reason not to. Ministers should also act and recruit business leaders as ‘flexible working’ champions, and should encourage private sector employers to adopt the Happy to Talk Flexible Working strapline.
  • Appointing a junior minister with specific responsibility for urgently driving up the national supply of suitable, good quality, and affordable childcare for children with a disability or special needs.



Business, flexible working & employee diversity

In this guest post, Andy Bagnall of the CBI argues that businesses need to do more to encourage flexible working and promote employee diversity.

Back in 2013, a survey of CBI members found that almost nine in ten UK companies offer some form of flexible working – a figure worth celebrating since flexible working brings the labour market into reach for a greater, and more diverse, group of people.

But in a YouGov poll commissioned in November this year, we found that employees are still finding it difficult to balance work and family life. We found that 43 per cent of employees would feel uncomfortable asking their employer about working more flexibly, against 40 per cent saying they would feel comfortable. The figures were almost identical for men and women.

Asked how they find balancing work and family life, 61 per cent said easy and 38 per cent said difficult. Again, there was no significant difference between the responses from men and women.

There are both positives and negatives that can be taken from such figures, but there are clearly steps that both businesses and government can take to make further improvements in promoting flexible working and meaningful diversity policies.

The CBI’s recently released A Better Off Britain report calls upon UK businesses to:

  • Adopt a presumption in favour of flexibility, from the job advert stage onwards
  • Commit to meaningful diversity policies and, where possible, to publish aspirational diversity targets
  • Show greater openness to job-sharing in more senior roles and ensuring recruitment processes maximise the diversity of shortlists

There is a clear call here for businesses to step up and implement these solid, actionable steps. But whilst businesses can do more, the government also has a role and one thing that it can do is help reduce the burden of childcare costs.

The infographic below shows that childcare is an increasing drag on families’ incomes. Middle income families now spend 34 per cent of their net income on childcare, and over 50 per cent of parents with a child under two would like to get a job or work more hours but the cost of childcare is a barrier.


The CBI is therefore calling on the Government to provide more help with childcare costs as soon as public finances allow, including extending the current 15 hours of free childcare for three and four year olds to children aged one and two, and extending maternity pay from 39 weeks to 52 weeks to close the gap between maternity leave and when free childcare becomes available.

Increasing the availability and acceptance of flexible working brings direct benefits to businesses since they can gain from the greater diversity of perspectives of their employees. But it is also good for both society and for how businesses are perceived in the communities in which they work.

Andy Bagnall is Director of Campaigns & Governance at the CBI, which is looking to encourage discussion about issues like this affecting business reputation through The Great Business Debate. With this campaign the CBI is bringing together voices from business, a diverse range of interest groups, and the wider public in various online and offline forums to have their say. If you’d like to hear more and state your own views, check out the campaign website and leave your thoughts, sign up to the campaign newsletter, and follow the campaign on twitter.


Does work leave you tired, stressed with no time for family? You’re not alone

Guest post by Heejung Chung, University of Kent

It’s just been Work-Life Week, when employers and employees are asked to think about how they juggle their working lives and to perhaps try to strike a balance.

In the UK, we’re more likely than others in neighbouring countries to feel that our working lives are at odds with our family lives.

In 2012 respondents across 29 European countries were asked in the European Social Survey: “How satisfied are you with the balance between the time you spend on your paid work and the time you spend on other aspects of your life?” On average, Britons answer just below seven (6.8) out of a scale of 0 (extremely unsatisfied) to 10 (extremely satisfied) – placing them smack in the middle of the countries surveyed.

This relative satisfaction is quite surprising when you take into account how Britons answered other questions relating to work-life balance. In 2010, more than a quarter of UK respondents told the European Social Survey that they often or always worry about work when not working – and a fifth said they felt their jobs prevented them from giving time to their partner or family. Meanwhile almost a third of all people surveyed said they felt too tired after work to enjoy life at home.

Just to put this into perspective, only about one in seven Norwegians said they worried about work when not working and felt that their jobs prevented enjoying things at home, and only one in eight felt their work prevented them from giving time to their families. In other words, Britons are about twice as likely as Norwegians to feel various types of conflict between their work life and family life.

It isn’t just the Norwegians – most of the UK’s Western European neighbours appear to be doing better in striking a balance between work and life.

Modern families

So why exactly do people feel like their work and family life are in conflict with one another? Of course, people with children – especially young children – are those who are more likely to feel that their jobs are preventing time with their families. They are also more likely to feel that they are not able to give time to other things, including housework, due to the time and energy they spend at work.

The most important factors in explaining why workers feel that their work life and family life, or other aspects of life, at are odds with one another are the number of hours spent at work and the demands at work. But what is also interesting is that it is not just your working hours, but your partner’s working hours that contribute to the amount of conflict you feel.

In other words, if your partner is putting long hours in the office, and you are left to take care of the children and put dinner on the table, you start feeling like your own work may be a bit too much.

Making our jobs work for us

Work-family conflict not only leads to negative outcomes for one’s own mental and physical well-being but it can have a devastating impact on one’s family, and can in turn lead to problems for the company, low productivity and high levels of sickness, absenteeism as well as societal issues such as lower fertility rates or loss of human capital from people leaving the workforce.

If governments and businesses want to solve this problem there are a number of things they can address, including policies to reduce household demands – such as generous childcare provision. The right to request flexible work has also been extended to all workers and can help, but only to an extent and not for some. If general working conditions and the gender division of labour don’t change, the right to flexible working cannot be the sole solution to our problems.

Can shorter working hours be a solution? There are many who have maintained that this will not only lead to better work-life balance but a stronger and greener economy.

When asked what was important when choosing a job in the 2010 survey, 85% replied that combining work and family responsibilities was important or very important. It is clearly time that these issues are taken much more seriously, with employers and society especially coming up with real solutions.

The Conversation

Heejung Chung receives funding from the ESRC for the project “Working-time flexibiilty and work-life balance” (Grant ref: ES/K009699/1)

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Tickets please! And make them flexible.

In this guest post, Martin Abrams of the Campaign for Better Transport explains the new campaign for cheaper train travel for part-time workers.

Today we are launching a campaign for cheaper train tickets for part-time workers. Together with a broad coalition of women’s groups, charities, and NGOs including Working Families we are sending a loud and clear message to the Government that we need cheaper rail travel for the country’s rapidly growing part-time workforce.

The need for flexible tickets is greater than ever. Over eight million people are now working part-time, and almost 75 per cent of these are women. Many part-time workers will ask why they too cannot enjoy the fares savings that full-time workers receive. With around half as many women working full-time as men, the lack of flexible ticketing options currently available is not only a cost of living issue, but has now become a gender equality issue that must be put right quickly. At the same time, when shared parental leave is introduced in April 2015 more men may want to take advantage of flexible rail tickets, so this really must be addressed quickly to give people what they want: greater work-life balance.

Working from home is also on the increase, with Office for National Statistics (ONS) statistics out last week showing that there is now a record 4.2 million UK home workers, amounting to 14 per cent of the workforce. Having the flexibility to choose to work from the office or from home is vital for a productive society but some people do not have that choice and are forced into irregular working patterns on zero-hours contracts. These contracts are rapidly on the increase, with the ONS estimating that at least 1.4 million people on these contracts, which do not provide a guaranteed minimum number of hours of employment and demand that workers are flexible. Having the option of more affordable rail tickets would be huge boost to many people on these contracts.

Part-time workers actually travel more than full-time workers, often because of integrating child care commitments. Families are a valuable asset to the economy but this lack of flexible ticketing can mean parents cannot afford to take up part time work, and are in effect being priced off our railways and out of work. Overall, commuting distances are on the increase, which has the result that more of these journeys are undertaken by rail. This rapid change in working patterns must be reflected with flexible fares and ticketing options available to all rail commuters.

The Department for Transport began consulting on fairer ticketing in March 2012, and in October 2013 pledged to trial part-time season tickets on a London commuter route. Although the trial was originally intended to run in 2014, no date has been set for it to begin and no line has yet been agreed. Since then there has been no news of when or where this trial will take place. As we approach the last year of the current Parliament, we are becoming increasingly concerned that this Government will run out of time and that the promised trial may be at risk of happening altogether.

Our research shows part-time workers would save hundreds of pounds if Government honoured its pledge to introduce flexible part-time tickets to Britain’s railways. Those commuting to part-time jobs in London from the South East would be an average of £1500 a year better off. Part-time commuters to Birmingham would save around £600, with those commuting to part-time roles in Manchester and Bristol saving £460 and £765 respectively.

Cheaper tickets for part time workers would really help those who’ve been hard hit by the recession. For example, young families already struggling with housing and childcare costs would get a real shot in the arm by making it cheaper and easier to get to work. The better flexibility part time tickets offer would be a boon the economy more generally, too.

London Mayor Boris Johnson and Transport for London have pledged to introduce flexible ticketing in early 2015. It is clear that our labour market has changed ,and will continue to change. It is now time for the Government and the rest of the rail industry to stop dragging their feet, and catch up.

You can support the campaign by writing to the Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughin MP, using our quick and easy action tool on the campaign website.

Flexible working for all: is your workplace ready?

By Cathy Rogan, Legal Adviser in the Working Families helpline team

You may have heard that the right to request flexible working is being extended from parents and carers to all employees from the end of June 2014. We now know a little more about what this will look like in practice.

Currently, once an employee makes a request with all the required information, there is a strict timescale for meetings, set out in Regulations, and an employer who wishes to refuse a request must do so in writing using specified reasons. Breach of the procedure by the employer can result in an award for the employee at an employment tribunal.

The new right to request flexible working will apply to all employees with 26 weeks of service. Unlike now, a lot of the procedure around the new right will be in an Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) code rather than legislation, so although it will be good practice to do so, employers don’t have to comply with it. The draft Acas code is now out, and though technically it’s still subject to parliamentary approval  it is now unlikely to change significantly.

As before, an employee can only apply only once in any 12 month period and an employee must put their request in writing, including prescribed information (explained in the code). The code suggests an employee should make clear if they are making their request in relation to the Equality Act, presumably to help the employer decide if there is a clash of employees wanting the same thing. The code gives the example of a disabled employee asking for a reasonable adjustment but it must follow that a woman seeking to change her hours for childcare reasons should explain this at the outset.

As with other Acas codes, when reading the code, you need to distinguish between ‘must’ which indicates a legal right and ‘should’ which constitutes good practice.  As a general theme, many of the ‘musts’ that we are used to around procedure have now become ‘shoulds’. This means that there are fewer instances where an employee can bring a claim just for breach of procedure, although they may draw a tribunal’s attention to the employer’s failure to do something that they ‘should as part of a wider claim.

On receipt of a request, the employer must consider the request and should discuss the request with the employee. There is no requirement that any discussion is done face-to-face although if possible it should take place in private. An employer should allow a work colleague to be present at the request of the employee. This contrasts with the old procedure where a meeting had to be held within 28 days, unless the employer was willing to agree the request without a meeting.

In practice, meetings were often where the employer and employee would get down to the business of negotiating – finding out what each other actually wanted and getting to a solution. Even though there is no longer a legal requirement to have a meeting (look at all those ‘shoulds’) it would be unwise for employers to give up on meetings altogether.

After the application (and after the meeting if they have one) the employer’s job at this point is to weigh the benefits to the employee and the business against the adverse business impact of implementing changes. As before, they can only refuse for one of the prescribed business related reasons – these haven’t changed, and you can find them here. The guidance includes examples of how refusal could be discrimination and makes suggestions as to what to do if several employees ask for the same thing at once. The suggestion of “drawing names from a hat” has rightly been dropped since earlier drafts.

The employer must inform the employee “as soon as possible” of their decision and should do so in writing. If an employer is rejecting a request, they should allow the employee to appeal.  The appeal does not need to be face-to-face.

All requests (including appeals where the employer allows these) must be considered and decided on within three months from first receipt, but this can be extended with the agreement of the employee. Interestingly, the example in the guidance of where such an extension might be granted is where the employer might want to trial the flexible arrangement before a decision is reached.

This could be useful for employees who are worried that offering a trial period is a way of fobbing them off. Previously the procedure didn’t stop for the trial period, so employees would have to decide whether to let procedural breaches go without knowing if their request would be agreed permanently.

All in all, the draft code of practice is a bit of a curate’s egg – good in parts. Whilst Working Families warmly welcome the extension of the right to request flexible working to all employees, there is a very real worry that an employer can sit on a request for three months before refusing verbally, with no meeting and no right to appeal.

In such circumstances it is unlikely that the employee will feel their request has been listened to or taken seriously. It remains to be seen how employers will follow the new code and what they will retain of the old regime.

Working parents struggling to hold on to family-friendly jobs

By Richard Dunstan, Policy & Parliamentary Campaigns Officer

In the week that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg called for radical legal and cultural change to “make family-friendly working the new norm in Britain”, the latest annual report of our legal helpline shows too many working parents struggling to hold onto family-friendly employment, and unlawful practice by unscrupulous employers ever more difficult to challenge.

Katrina is a young single mother working in the care home sector.  Two years ago, when Katrina separated from her partner, her then manager agreed to Katrina reducing her hours and working a set shift pattern, as Katrina no longer had anyone to share the childcare with.  However, that manager has now left, and Katrina’s new manager has told her that she must from now on work full-time, and on variable shift patterns. Katrina wants to keep her job, but knows she has little hope of finding affordable childcare to cover the new shift patterns that would now be involved.

Katrina is just one of the 2,585 working parents and carers – 85 per cent of them women – who called or emailed the Working Families legal helpline in 2013.  The helpline team provide free advice on key work-life balance rights such as maternity and paternity leave and pay, time off in an emergency, and unpaid parental leave.  They provide help with requesting and negotiating flexible working (or with contesting imposed changes to an existing flexible working arrangement), and with challenging pregnancy, maternity or other discrimination in the workplace.  And they offer advice on relevant social security benefits and tax credits.

With changes to the social security system – including the ‘Bedroom Tax’ and a freeze on Child Benefit – continuing to hit low-income families hard, and childcare and other essential living costs rising faster than wages, many of those who  contacted the helpline in 2013 were trying to work out how they can make work pay. And others were trying to adopt a new, family-friendly working pattern following maternity leave, or in response to a major change of family circumstances, such as relationship breakdown or the onset of disability of their child.

But in 2013 the helpline’s team of advisers dealt with an increased number of cases in which the caller’s employer had imposed, or was seeking to impose, a significant change in hours or work pattern, without adequate consultation and with little if any consideration for the resultant difficulty in meeting family responsibilities.

Launching the report  earlier today, Working Families Chief Executive, Sarah Jackson said:

A growing number of callers to the helpline are reporting the family-friendly working pattern they have had in place for years being changed or withdrawn virtually overnight, with no opportunity for them to express their views and negotiate either retention of the existing pattern or, failing that, a mutually agreeable compromise.

Among the case studies highlighted in the report:

Kathryn, a mother of three young children, called the Helpline after being told by her employer – a small retailer – she had to increase her hours and work Saturdays, with immediate effect.  Kathryn had been employed by the company for 19 years, during which time she had only ever worked on weekdays.  Kathryn’s partner already worked Saturdays, and the couple could not afford extra childcare for the Saturday.

Robin, a father of two young children, one of them disabled, had been employed as a lab technician for ten years.  For the past three years, Robin had worked from 6.30 am to 2.30 pm each weekday, so as to cover the afternoon school run.  Now his employer had told Robin that he must change his hours to 8.30 am to 5.15 pm, which would make it impossible for Robin to be available for either school run.

Harini, a children’s centre worker, was told that on her return from maternity leave she would have to change her long-established flexible working pattern so as to do more work from the office and less from home, despite her role having become more strategy-based. With the helpline team’s assistance, Harini submitted a formal grievance, and the employer then backed down, allowing Harini to return to work on her previous working pattern.

It is especially pleasing when, as in Harini’s case, our helpline team is able to support many callers through negotiating an agreeable solution, enabling them to stay with their employer.  But the team deal with far too many cases in which the employer is unreasonably intransigent, and the introduction of upfront employment tribunal fees last year appears to have put formal legal action out of the reach of many.

The most recent official figures show a dramatic fall in the number of employment tribunal claims by individual claimants, from an average of 4,530 per month before the introduction of fees in July 2013, to just 1,000 in September, 1,620 in October, 1,840 in November, and 1,500 in December.

This matters, because if vulnerable workers cannot access the tribunal system, then unlawful practice by less scrupulous employers – whether inadvertent or deliberately exploitative – will go unchecked, and more employers will be tempted to similarly disregard the rights of their workers when seeking to make organisational changes.

As employment barrister Natasha Joffe noted recently in a great blog post on Mumsnet, “since July 2013, thousands of people who would otherwise have done so have not complained about breaches of their employment rights. Worse than that, the fact that very few people can now bring claims at all means that the pressure on employers to comply with employment laws is vastly diminished”.

That is clearly unfair to the workers concerned, as well as to the great majority of employers who readily abide by the law and do their best for their workforce. But it also makes the work of our helpline team that much more difficult, and that much more important.

The report concludes that, to protect gender equality, tackle the widespread discrimination around pregnancy and maternity leave, and support the extension (from June) of the right to request flexible working and the new right (from April 2015) to shared parental leave, fees for claimants should – at the very least – be reduced to a nominal level.

The report also recommends that all new fathers should be eligible to at least two weeks of paid paternity leave at the time of or soon after the birth, without having to meet inordinately long service and notice requirements (currently, fathers have to have had 26 weeks service by the 15th week before the expected date of childbirth). And it calls on the Government, trade unions and employer bodies to jointly explore what more can be done to ensure that employers act legally and follow best practice when seeking to make changes to pay, hours or working patterns.


Making Britain less Edwardian? Or just more Elizabethan?

By Richard Dunstan, Policy & Parliamentary Campaigns Officer

Flexible working and family-friendly policies were on the agenda this morning, when the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, delivered a keynote speech at the launch of Cityfathers, a welcome new “network for City professionals who have a shared interest in balancing family life with a progressive career”.

The speech was strong on rhetoric and aspirations, with the Deputy Prime Minister asserting that “we need to tackle once and for all the hidden prejudices which still limit the choices of many men and women” with a “once-in-a-generation chain reaction across our offices, factories and other workplaces”.  Hear hear to that.

But it was less strong on history, with a headline-grabbing but somewhat baffling assertion that “we have to sweep away those Edwardian rules which still hold back those families working hard to juggle their responsibilities at home and at work. For decades, our parental leave system has been based on the assumption that it’s dad who goes out to work while mum cares for the kids – giving fathers two weeks off when your baby is first born and mothers up to a year”.

Edwardian rules? The statutory right of new fathers to two weeks’ paid paternity leave dates from 2003, and it was only in 2007 that paid maternity leave was extended from six to nine months (the plan to further extend it to a year later being abandoned).  And, as one expert noted recently, the reality is that during the Edwardian era – the decade after the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 – a great many working class families counted on two wages, not one. Mr Clegg’s ‘dad at work while mum cares for the kids’ model is more a mid-20th century thing, for the masses at least.

Rather more seriously, the speech was somewhat longer on exhortation to employers than it was on governmental policies to “drag those clapped out rules into the 21st Century”. Avoiding any reference to the shockingly low rate at which statutory paternity leave is paid – less than 60 per cent of the national minimum wage – Mr Clegg suggested that the new right to shared parental leave, due to come into force in April 2015, will play a key role in making family-friendly working “the new norm in Britain”.

However, as the Fatherhood Institute was quick to point out, this legal change is most unlikely to significantly increase fathers’ uptake of parental leave above current levels – not least because “by the government’s own estimate, fathers in only one in three working families will be eligible for it”.  And cultural change will be glacially slow in coming so long as take up of paternity leave remains so pitifully low.

As we note in our draft ‘families & work’ manifesto for 2015, it is vital that we get fathers more involved in caring for their children, so as to ensure gender equality in the home as well as at work,  and reduce overall childcare costs for families.  And to do this, we suggest that the government elected in 2015 needs to work towards longer, more flexible and better paid periods of dedicated leave for fathers. At the very least, statutory paternity (and maternity) pay needs to be steadily raised to at least parity with the national minimum wage, and entitlement to statutory paid paternity leave needs to be increased from two to six weeks, with further increases to follow in the longer term.

In short, what we need is not so much a sweeping away of Edwardian rules, but more – or simply better – Elizabethan rules. Elizabeth the Second, that is.

Postscript:  If I’ve been unduly harsh to Mr Clegg, I definitely have to hand it to Miriam Gonzalez Durantez – aka Mrs Clegg – who left little room for doubt when she ‘hijacked’ her husband’s Q&A following his Cityfathers speech to declare that men who take time out from work to look after their children have “more cojones”.  Amen to that.


Good work: a Utopian dream?

By Tuva Johansson, researcher at Working Families

One may argue that the concept of good work is a utopian concept: full of privileged, Western ideas. In light of changed needs and priorities due to social and economic change in the 21st century, views on work are evolving. Our society is embracing a dual-earner model where women are working more.  Now more than ever, work is regarded as a way to fulfil needs other than economic and material ones. Workplaces are pushed to accommodate these changes. By embracing measures such as family friendliness, employers also hope to increase productivity and effectiveness, and enhance the well-being of employees. Focusing on general well-being is a way to improve people’s experience of the workplace: feelings of autonomy and fulfilment at work matter.

In recent years we have witnessed work intensification in the workplace, suggesting that employers use recessions to intensify effort levels among staff. It is questionable if this intensification is sustainable and it is not compatible with family friendliness. Other issues, relevant to the idea of good work centre on income: “in-work-poverty”, “working poor” and low-skilled, low-wage jobs. Lack of opportunities, rewards and status in low-skilled jobs and low-paid jobs is a stark problem in the UK. It is worth emphasising a debate concerning work becoming divided into two opposing groups: creative, intellectual and socially prestigious work and repetitive, undistinguished and unprofessional work. In low-skilled, low-pay businesses, deliberate cost-minimising strategies are seen as convenient and affordable and result in lower levels of human capital investment.

A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation  found that 1.4 million low-paid jobs are in the wholesale, retail and transport sectors, 30 per cent of all low-paid jobs in the UK economy. These sectors employ a large proportion of their workforce on non-standard contracts, mostly part-time or temporary contracts, but also rising numbers of zero-hours contracts. There is also a trend in underemployment, where many people work part-time even though they would prefer full-time work.  Wages are a significant issue, too. In 2012, around 27 per cent of female and 15 per cent of male employees were paid below the UK living wage of £7.45/hr.

Nevertheless, good work is not only achieved by higher wages. On the contrary, things other than money are important. Skill utilisation, security, autonomy, discretion, working time and work intensity are key ingredients for a better work life. Choice, autonomy, flexibility and control over working hours are important for employees, in being able to juggle work-life time pressures.

A paradox in modern society is that a progressive gender culture may lead to increased stress-levels among families. It is women who work full-time that have experienced the highest rise in work intensification. The requirement to work more intensely increases the higher the qualification level of the worker.  This stress is referred to as ‘combination pressure’ – arising from satisfying work and family commitments.

Another great paradox is that people consider themselves happy even though we see increased stress levels:  it has been shown that life satisfaction and happiness do not decrease despite stress and time pressure increasing. Economic modernisation leads to more work stress but may also open up more time resources after work, which leads to more leisure time. Thus, the more leisure time the more satisfied we are, but also more time pressured.  Some discuss the term ‘event society’, a society in which people want to experience more and more.

An interesting finding is that in Sweden, one of the most gender-equal countries, parents face more ‘combination pressures’ than in the UK. Stress is considered more volatile when the demands at the work place are high and at the same time the worker has little influence over his/her working conditions.  Although Sweden is one of the countries where employees regard themselves as very stressed, Sweden also ranks very high when it comes to life-satisfaction and happiness. This paradox leads to the conclusion that modern societies and modern workplaces can develop resources that enable individuals to cope with combination pressure and enable them to live with a higher pace of life.

Attention should be given to policies reducing the forms of work organisation that sees intense and high-strain working conditions combined with low job control. For employees and businesses good work provides a working environment with more satisfaction: an environment that aims to involve and engage employees and to encourage their contribution to organisational success. Developing employees’ skills and competencies and improving employees’ reconciliation of working and non-working life are key in achieving a healthy workforce.

Employers can be enablers and good work should thus not be a utopian dream for a privileged few.

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.