Flexible working – where do we go now?
Already the downturn has led to employers calling for employment rights to be slashed – most recently with the Institute of Directors claiming that fair treatment at work is costing the UK £1billion a year, with new rights to flexible working adding £61 million to their total. But of course this is ridiculous. The business benefits of flexible working – and significant cost savings that it can provide – are well documented, by both unions and employers alike. Reduced absence, improved productivity and engagement, enhanced reputation and greater staff retention go together with the improved work-life balance, quality of life and job satisfaction that flexible working offers to employees.
And during the recession the potential benefits are as relevant as they have ever been, with many employers making use of flexible working as an alternative to redundancies, recognising the potential that flexible practices provide as a means to retain staff. For example, Nissan is asking employees to work shorter weeks and reduce the production line to save on costs, to avoid more job cuts.
But it is important that the broader benefits of flexible working are still recognised – and that arrangements remain available over the longer-term. Because when we come out of this recession we will need to build a new economy based on making best use of everyone’s skills, re-focusing on sustainable growth rather than risky financial gambling. Increased access to flexible working will be vital to achieving this goal.
And there are still huge problems to overcome. For the second year the number of UK workers undertaking unpaid overtime has increased, and the gender pay gap has also started moving in the wrong direction. Improved flexible working rights are a necessity to enabling women and men to share caring responsibilities equally, as well as ensuring that all employees have greater control over their working lives – and that businesses can reap the benefits.
And that is why there is more that needs to be done. While the right to request has been a welcome UK policy development, as it has encouraged greater awareness of the importance of flexible working and has encouraged dialogue between employers and individual workers about work-life balance issues, it is a very weak statutory right. And, although government surveys show that most requests for flexible working are agreed by the employer, it is still mainly women who make requests. In addition, the very high part-time gender pay gap in the UK indicates that there is a real lack of good quality, senior jobs with flexible working opportunities, which suggests that in certain jobs and workplaces there continues to be a strong long-hours culture which deters employees from even raising the issue.
The right to request could be strengthened to allow employees to challenge the validity of employers’ reasons for turning down a request. At the moment employers only have to follow a procedure and say that they are turning down the request for one of eight legal reasons. This means there is a real difference of statutory force behind men and women making requests – as women can rely on the threat of bringing an indirect sex discrimination claim to give their request more force and require more serious consideration.
Greater and better paid paternity and parental leave rights for fathers could also help in encouraging fathers to seek flexible working – and research shows that fathers who have a high degree of contact around the birth of the child and early years are more likely to play a more active role in parenting throughout the child’s life.
And generally more information and campaign materials are needed to raise awareness of the right amongst fathers and to encourage employers to think of it as a gender neutral right rather than only taking it seriously when a request comes from a woman. Only then will we see the widespread culture change that is needed.
Recently introduced rights have started us on the road to a new culture of work – but there is still a great deal to do.
This article first appeared on the Australian site Workplace Flexibility. For more details on flexible working you can download the TUC’s free e-newsletter on work-life balance and working time issues.