Over the last decade, flexible working has been increasingly seen as an important tool for individuals to help balance work and family life. Successive governments have introduced rights to flexible working and the Coalition government is looking to increase worker rights through its Modern Workplaces agenda. 1 Currently, the majority of parents have the legal right to request flexible working and some employers have introduced extensive flexible work policies for their staff. For forward thinking employers, offering a comprehensive flexible working package is not just seen as a benefit purely for parents, but rather about engendering good business practice which supports all workers: promoting well-being, a good work atmosphere and facilitating improved efficiency, retention and performance as well as potential office overheads savings.
Flexible working for families today: laudable aims and stark realities
Recent government figures show that flexible working has become near universal in UK workplaces - with over 95% of workplaces offering at least one flexible working practice – hence it would be easy to assume that the picture of work-life balance for the UK’s families looks quite rosy. Scratch a little deeper however, and you will find that many employees will paint a very different image. Flexible working is still extremely difficult to obtain across a range of workplaces. Reconciling work and family life remains a clear challenge for a number of families; for some parents it even means making tough choices about whether to exit work all-together and this will have significant implications for their families.
Where are we now?
There is long way to go before all families have the opportunity to participate in the workplace in a way that meets both employers’ and families’ needs. This report looks at recent progress towards getting the family work/life balance right and makes an assessment of the outstanding challenges ahead. Through detailed case study research, this report finds that while many businesses claim to be both family friendly and pro-flexible working, there is a clear disparity between aims and implementation. Workplace culture and management practice remains fixed on a 9-5 model (or longer hours) and most employers continue to consider flexible working cases on an inconsistent, ad-hoc basis rather than implementing a pro-active, strategic approach to adapt working practices.
Key Findings and Recommendations
On the basis of our case study research, analysis of current flexible working policies and the recent proposals being developed by the department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), this report presents a number of recommendations for both employers and policy makers with a view to improving families’ work-life balance through implementing innovative approaches to managing flexible work and by improving policy and practice.
- Flexible working needs to become normalised in all workplaces. We urge the government to progress the key proposal in the Modern Workplaces agenda to extend the ‘right to request’ to all employees. For a number of our case studies, flexible working continues to be viewed as a parental annoyance reserved for some mothers. Whilst this perception remains, parents requesting flexible working will continue to be discriminated against in the workplace and not be able to reconcile home and work life in a way that meets their needs. For all employers there is a clear business case for promoting flexible working for all employees: flexible working reduces business costs by bringing down staff stress levels, reducing absences and can improve staff retention rates.
- The government should strengthen and refine the statutory ‘right to request’ with a view to making the process more adaptable to family needs. We urge the government to allow employees to make a second flexible working request within a year and promote the use of flexible working trial periods. For a number of our case study examples, there is not enough awareness about the purpose and use of flexible working trials. In these cases, this directs employers to move to refuse a request in order to comply with statutory time periods. Using more flexible working trials will allow businesses and employees time to adapt to a new working framework and should be encouraged.
- The government should look to support flexible working through proposals in the Modern Workplaces agenda to increase flexibility in taking maternity, paternity and parental leaves. Allowing some element of a phased return to work can ease the transition between full time leave and returning to work. For some employees and employers this period could serve as an informal trial of flexible working.
- Workplaces must become more proactive rather than reactive in dealing with flexible working requests. Businesses need to integrate flexible working into their forward planning, job design and proactively train staff to manage flexible working employees. Human Resource professionals should develop extensive support structures to manage flexible working practices and show how managers can develop, monitor and motivate their flexible working staff.
- Workplaces should look at new information technologies which promote mobile and remote working, many of which can be implemented at low or no additional cost. In today’s high competitive and globalised economy, remote access and mobile technologies can significantly improve working productivity and are integral to providing a seamless customer service with limited staff capacity. Savings made through reduced fixed office costs could offset any technological investment needed.