Five things we have learned about flexible working ahead of the new right to ask regs

flexible workingYou can’t help but notice that surveys about flexible working have been pretty thick on the ground over the last few weeks and months. The reason is that – as well as the usual ongoing fascination with the subject – the UK Government is extending the right to request regulations at the end of this month, allowing all staff to ask their employers for flexible working after six months in a job. As well as the numerous studies that firms have commissioned to explore the issue, there has been even more commentary and guidance, often from law firms. While we should always view each of these in context, adding however much salt we deem necessary to season their findings, what is always interesting when you have a media pile-in like this is to sift through it all to look for patterns, common themes and contrasts. Here are just five:

Employees are generally keener than organisations, who tend to see it as a means to an end

There is little doubt that employees are driving the uptake of flexible working. Around a quarter of UK employees are expected to make the request following the introduction of the new legislation. Meanwhile, another report claims that as many as 40 percent of staff would like to change the hours or the way they work. According to a Government report published at the end of May, “employers see limited business benefits from flexible working, so are unlikely to actively encourage it. Any increases are therefore more likely to be led by employees.” A survey by Citrix found that amongst small and medium sized businesses, less than half of business leaders think the new legislation is a good thing.

What benefits employers do see from flexible working tend to involve attracting and retaining staff. In other words, employees see flexible working as an end, firms see it as a means. Even in a sector with as poor a public image  and as office-focussed and money-motivated (supposedly) as The City, there is a widespread awareness that if you want the best people, you may need to loosen up. A survey by recruitment consultants Robert Half claimed that two thirds of large financial services organisation are using flexible working as a way of attracting staff and improving their reputation.


It can be a double-edged sword when it comes to careers and colleagues

People may be driving the uptake of flexible working, but it is also people who resent their colleagues when they take it up. And their employers may also see it as a barrier to promotion. According to a Netmums survey around a third of people think there is resentment in the workplace towards flexible working staff while another report concludes that women face a particular degree of resentment.  In some sectors such as the legal profession, flexible working may even be viewed as career suicide according to a report published last year. The belief is widespread among managers of all organisations with two-thirds believing that the desire for flexible working is consistent with a lack of ambition.


We need to make distinctions

There is a tendency to lump a number of different practices together when it comes to flexible working. Yet there is a big difference between homeworking, part-time work, flexible hours and locations and the various other forms that flexible working takes. Legislators don’t make such distinctions however and are wont to make their claims about the uptake of flexible working in simplistic terms that can obscure or deflect attention from the complexities of the situation. So while the Government may boast about the fact that around 4.5 million Brits now work from home and see it as a vindication of their approach to flexible working, a large chunk of these people are the millions of UK’s self-employed, freelancers or business start-ups for whom the legislation is largely or completely irrelevant.  Indeed, as a recent report from Check Business shows, such people are likely to be working 5-9 almost as much as 9-5, so the idea of flexible working is both inherent in what they do and meaningless at the same time. If the Government wants these people to have more control over the hours, they work, a good place to start would be getting the firms for whom they work to pay on time.


However much an issue is talked about, many people won’t even be aware of it, never mind understand it

Over half of UK firms aren’t even aware of the new legislation according to Jobsite. So they will be in for a surprise on the 1 July. Even those that are aware, according to the same survey, may not understand the law changes and a quarter hadn’t even begun to worry about it.

According to Netmums, a third of workplaces don’t offer any form of flexible working at all and only 15 percent of employees are aware of their employer offering it, while a survey from the Timewise Foundation claims that a mere quarter of all job ads make mention of any form of flexible working option.


Organisations are increasingly told they have to offer flexible working if they want to attract people to work for them  

Recruitment firms, legislators, unions and other lobbyists, not to mention individuals, are increasingly highlighting the consequences of a failure to offer flexible working to employees, as well as the benefits. The main one is an inability to attract and retain staff,  one of the defining objectives of HR and workplace strategies these days, especially when it comes to specific demographics such as Gen Y employees, women, parents, people with disabilities and older people.