Urgent action is needed to make flexible working the norm. But these proposals won't be the ‘game changer’ ministers claim them to be.
We’ve had some form of right to request flexible working for almost 20 years. It was first introduced for some parents in 2003 and was gradually tweaked until 2014 when all employees were given the right to request flexible working arrangements.
But to request you have to have worked continuously for an employer for 26 weeks, must be legally classed as an employee (this can exclude agency staff and those on zero hours contracts) and can only make one request every 12 months.
Requests for flexible working can include job-sharing, remote and home working, set shift patterns, getting your hours in advance, term-time working, flexitime and condensed hours.
1. It's too easy for employers to turn down requests
Employers can deny requests based on eight extremely broad statutory “business reasons”. And all too often they do. When this happens - there’s no right to appeal.
Our research showed that three in ten flexible working requests are denied and that flexi-time (the most popular form of flexible working) was unavailable to over half (58 per cent) of the UK workforce, rising to nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) for people in working-class occupations.
2. Negative workplace cultures put workers off asking
The government’s own research found that nearly two in five (38 per cent) mothers did not request the flexible working they wanted, typically because they did not think it would be approved or because they were worried their employer would view their request negatively.
3. Flexible work is stigmatised as it’s not the norm
The same research revealed that over half (51 per cent) of women had experienced discrimination or disadvantage as a direct result of having a flexible working request approved.
Despite the length of time legislation has been in place, it hasn’t worked. The proportion of employees doing no form of flexible working has only changed by 4 percentage points, from 74% to 70% between 2013 and 2020.
With some workers excluded from asking altogether, low request rates due to fear of bad treatment, high numbers of rejections by employers and disadvantage for those who do get flexible working, the system is completely broken. And we need change.
The government has recognised the popularity of flexible working amongst the public and the benefits for business. Our research has shown that more than four out of five (82 per cent) workers in Britain want to work flexibly in the future, rising to 87 per cent amongst women workers.
But rather than a solution to match the problem, the government is proposing to tinker round the edges of flexible working legislation.
The consultation will include making the right to request a day 1 entitlement and considering whether to change the limits on the number of applications made per year. It will also look at whether to cut the three-month period an employer has to review any flexible working request and if employers should offer alternatives, if a request cannot be accommodated.
The government’s changes won’t make a difference. Employers can still turn down any or all requests for flexible working. The right to ask nicely is no right at all.
Instead, we need the government to deliver a two-step solution to make genuine flexible working the default:
1. Unlock the flexibility in all jobs - employers should have to think upfront about the flexible working options that are available in a role, publish these in all job adverts and give people the right to take these up from day one.
If an employer doesn’t think any type of flexibility is possible, they should be required to set out the ‘exceptional circumstances’ that back this up.
2. Give workers the right to work flexibly from day one, unless there are exceptional circumstances that prevent it.
Workers also need a right to appeal any rejections and no limits on the number of requests that can be made.
If the government genuinely wants to make flexible working the default, we cannot have a system based on individuals asking nicely and hoping for the best.
Flexible working benefits everyone but it is essential if we want to tackle gender inequality at work. It is also vital for disabled workers, older workers, those with caring responsibilities and allows everyone time for life outside of work.
Not all jobs can support every type of flexibility, but every job can accommodate some kind of flexible working. The government needs to strengthen the law to improve working life for everyone.
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