Flexible working has been talked about for years. It isn’t new but it has, in the last couple of years, become a much bigger focus for employees and employers alike.
There have been numerous surveys done on flexible working and it is consistently listed as one of the most desirable benefits of an employment package.
One survey of working parents by Regus revealed 85% would forgo other benefits, such as gym membership, to have flexible working.
This study shows that flexible working is the most desired benefit in almost every age group of those polled and always in the top two.
Looking at the top companies to work for in 2020, according to Glassdoor, most of the commendations are linked to work-life balance and “progressive ways of working and attitudes”.
And other studies echo these findings with this one showing 80% of job-seekers value a work-from-home option as an additional benefit.
The statistics are there. Being able to work from home helps to attract and retain good employees. Among the homeworker community, and those who work for themselves, the flexibility to work around family life is the biggest attraction.
Meeting the demand for flex
Anybody who has worked for an organisation for at least 26 weeks is legally entitled to ask for flexible working. This doesn’t just mean working from home; it covers reducing your hours, working specific shifts or days or even job sharing.
Yet despite the demand, not everybody has offered it. According to one study, fewer than three in 10 UK employers offered flexible working last year but this recent data shows a year-on-year increase in remote working and it has grown 159% globally since 2005.
Not until the Coronavirus pandemic forced companies to implement working from home out of necessity, did we suddenly see proof that it is possible.
“It’s proved that the technology is there to facilitate it,” says Anna Whitehouse of Mother Pukka, who leads the Flex Appeal campaign to push for flexible working for all. “Globally we’re now working in a more flexible way – overnight we have seen how quickly the tech can be put into place, how quickly teams can work remotely.”
Of course, not every job can realistically be done from home but Whitehouse has been campaigning for more flexible working for five years, ever since her own request for it was denied by her then-employer.
Her mantra has been that flexible working is for people, not just parents. It is a primary driver to make the workspace more inclusive, encourage more diversity and reduce the gender pay-gap. It was highlighted by The Equality and Human Rights Commission as a way to remove barriers and increase opportunities for all, including parents and those with disabilities.
“Only when flexible working works for everyone will these issues, this glaring black hole of inequality and the gender pay-gap close,” says Whitehouse.
Flexibility and equality
Her campaign saw an influx of communication after the gender pay-gap reporting came into force three years ago but she notes her frustration that it took a “public shaming” for companies to take it seriously.
Gemma Rosenblatt, Head of Policy of the Fawcett Society agrees. “The slow pace of change on the gender pay-gap shows the severity of the situation. To tackle the gap, we need to ensure that everyone who needs to work flexibly is enabled to progress in their career.”
Research conducted by Mason Frank International suggests women in the tech industries find it harder to access flexible working, something they say is in part due to the stigma and a perception that women working flexibly contribute less than someone working full-time in the office. “There’s also a perception that women will ‘drift away’, ie leave the business or try to go part-time after becoming comfortable with flexible working,” says CEO, James Lloyd-Townshend.
“The reality is that both of these things can happen, but that’s part of a circular problem and a direct by-product of the flexibility stigma. It means women are less likely to make flexible working requests even when feeling a strain on their work-life balance, and are more likely to feel isolated and minimised when they do work flexibly. This inevitably leads to burnout. ”
Flexible working: Not just for parents
While flexible working is widely regarded as a tool to help women maintain a career after having children, it is not just women fighting for it. Closing this gender pay-gap includes issues around paternity leave for new dads.
“Although men are consistently shown in surveys to be the most dissatisfied with their work-life balance, we hear from lots of dads that flexible working still feels like a distant dream for them,” says Dr Jeremy Davies, of the Fatherhood Institute. “We need flexibility to be the default, rather than something the senior bosses do in secret.”
Madeleine Cole, MD of Venture Business Ltd, which organises the Flexpo events to promote flexible working opportunities, says it is not just about supporting parents either. “All the while we focus on parents only, we aren’t being truly inclusive and we breed resentment in workplaces. No matter what someone’s life choices are and how they choose to prioritise what’s important in their life, flex should be for all with no questions asked or assumptions made about why.”
Lloyd-Townshend agrees. “We need to change the culture of employment benefits and move towards supporting the individual, based on their particular circumstances and what could optimise their performance. Only by educating the workplace on these benefits, and measuring and demonstrating the success of remote working, will attitudes towards it change.”
The pros and cons of flexible working
One of the companies to embrace flexible working and which is supporting the Flex Appeal campaign, is Sir Robert McAlpine. Karen Brookes, Director of People & Infrastructure at the firm says, “There is overwhelming evidence that agile and flexible working helps people to deliver to their full potential by providing better work-life balance and greater job satisfaction. It is a win-win for individuals and the business and society in general.”
It seems the message has got through already in Finland. Scandinavia is often heralded as leading the world in flexible working and employee wellbeing. In January of this year, Finland’s Working Hours Act came into force to modernise laws around working hours. Working from home falls under the new rules with location no longer crucial to calculating the hours worked.
However, no business is immune to the challenges that flexible working and homeworking throw up. Katie Beardsworth, Founder and Director of Polyphony Arts, has always had a need for flexibility due to the nature of her events-focused work.
Having been employed, self-employed and now managing a remote team herself, she understands the concerns from both an employer and employee perspective.
She highlights some of the concerns that many employers have about flexible working as:
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