Flexible Working - A Missed Opportunity?

24/09/2015 11:51 BST | Updated 23/09/2016 10:12 BST

It's easy to think of flexible working as a niche issue - a perk offered to a small number of women who need to work fewer hours after returning from a period of maternity leave in order to manage family responsibilities. It is therefore surprising to learn that according to flexible working agency Timewise, there are currently 5.4 million people in the UK working flexibly and an additional 8.7 million people who would if the opportunity became available - totaling 46% of UK employees[i].

The government defines flexible working as "a way of working that suits an employee's needs, e.g. having flexible start and finish times, or working from home." Until last year, only parents of children under the age of 17 (or 18 for disabled children) and certain carers had the right to request flexible working. However as of 30 June 2014 every employee has a statutory right to request flexible working after 26 weeks in employment. Employers can reject the request on the grounds that it would be detrimental to their business. Reasons can include additional costs, difficulties in re-assigning work or recruiting additional staff, impact on quality or performance, inability to meet customer demand, insufficient work during the timings proposed and planned future changes to the business.

Interestingly the definition and the legislation is written in such a way that assumes all the benefits are felt by the employee whilst the employer will need to bear (often substantial) disadvantages. But is this true in practice?

Embracing flexible working can actually bring substantial benefits to an organisation. Many small businesses know this instinctively. They hire in roles on a part-time basis as and when they need the resource in order to keep costs low and survive the tricky first few years. This often extends all the way to director level, with part time finance, HR and marketing directors in small to medium sized firms.

On a larger scale, Lambeth Council is putting flexible working at the heart of a five-year restructuring programme that will reduce the number of offices from 14 to two and save £4.5M in estate costs per year. By 2017 it expects no more than 60% of workers in the office on any given day.

Diageo recognise the benefits of flexible working on recruitment and retention. According to employee satisfaction surveys, it is deeply appreciated by the employee population. Rather than being a compromise for women or parents, flexible working is seen to be an enabler of talent and performance. CBI Director for Employment and Skills Neil Carberry argues flexible shifts can be used to match changing demand and that those companies that adopt remote working can be increasingly nimble during bad weather, transport strikes and office moves.

The second barrier is that the current legislation only opens up flexible working to existing employees. For this reason, 77% of flexible workers feel trapped in their current role unless they wish to return to a full-time traditional work pattern. Employers rarely consider if a role could be carried out on a flexible basis before advertising, with only 6.2% of job offers specifically stating they would consider applicants wishing to work flexibly.

A lack of flexible work at the right pay-grade and skill level is arguably the reason that the gender pay-gap for 30 to 39 year-olds is currently at 12.0%. This is because the gender pay-gap is based on hourly pay, because a far higher proportion of women work part-time than men in these age groups, and because part-time work pays far less per hour on average than full-time work. Not only are women reducing their hours, they are reducing their hourly pay as well.

Timewise found that 41% of flexible workers have taken a role below their skill and salary level to secure fewer or more convenient working hours. They also found the majority of mothers have never been promoted since switching to part-time work following the birth of their children. This demonstrates a dramatic under-utilisation of skills in the UK labour market. Rather than being blocked by a 'glass-ceiling', too many women are trapped on a 'sticky floor'.

The picture is even bleaker when the figures are broken down by sector and level. Campaigners have worked for years to encourage women into science and technology - however these sectors offer the lowest rates of flexible working in the UK (with science and technology at 3% and engineering and manufacturing at 2%). This is only matched by the 2% of flexible roles offered at director level.

So what needs to be done? Firstly a plea to employers - when creating new roles, consider if the jobs can be carried out flexibly and if so, say so in the advertisement and through the recruitment process. If we want to address the gender pay-gap, stop the wasteful under-utilisation of skills, attract top candidates and retain women in science and technology then we need to change our thinking around flexible working. We need to start recognising the clear benefits and create policies to extend flexible working through the recruitment, staff development and promotion process if we really want to make a difference to equality and productivity in the UK.

[i] According to the Timewise Flexible Jobs Index: