In 2010 the Coalition Government first stated its intention to extend the existing flexible working regime to enable all employees regardless of their circumstances, to make a request to vary their work pattern. The proposal was duly included in the Modern Workplaces Consultation (together with key improvements to the existing regime), to which the Government’s response is expected imminently.
There was no specific mention in the Queen’s Speech last Wednesday, despite the CIPD’s encouragement for the Government to “hold its nerve” and go ahead with the extension. This call by CIPD followed key findings from a comprehensive study on flexible working including that “seven out of ten employers report that flexible working supports employee retention, motivation and engagement”.
The omission from the Queen’s Speech does not necessarily mean that the extension has been shelved or discarded, it could yet be part of the draft Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill. After all, the Government has already committed to the measure in principle. All will be revealed, I am sure, when the Consultation response is released.
The Government defines “flexible” as being “any agreement for an employee to work in a way that best fits their other responsibilities whilst also ensuring that the job gets done” (Consultation, page 2). I am one of many who wholeheartedly support working flexibly in this way. I know first hand how much more productive workers can be when their employer’s focus is on getting the job done effectively rather than wanting bums on seats for x number of hours per day. And I agree with CIPD to a point, that the Government should hold its nerve and make the necessary legislation to facilitate flexible working for all.
But extending the legislation and improving it in the ways proposed in the Consultation is only half the story. That is, arguably, the easy part. Disappointing as it would be if the legislation does not materialise, it will be equally disappointing if the legislation is made without the further action necessary to support businesses and employees in using an extended regime and achieving true flexibility, or at least something approaching that.
Because a significant barrier to flexible working is not the lack of appropriate legislation, it is culture and attitudes. The CIPD paper reports that although a significant proportion of employers offer some form of atypical work pattern, more than one third of employers who responded to the survey cited “organisational culture” and “attitudes of senior managers” as barriers to flexible working (at page 3). Similar proportions of employee respondents felt the same.
In our society where technology is king and we are used to enormous flexibility in many areas of life, working practices in many organisations have been left behind. People now shop, learn, socialise and interact in different ways than 30 years ago, but for a great number of employers, things have not moved on as the focus all too often remains firmly on keeping employees where they can be seen and monitored. Employees themselves contribute to this. How many times has the phrase “part-timer” been thrown as a cruel jibe at anyone who does not buy in to a culture of presenteeism at their particular workplace?
However, the belief (on both sides) that this is a way to ensure productivity is misplaced. With petrol prices rocketing and public transport getting worse and costing more, the requirement to be physically present in the workplace during prescribed hours on particular days just adds (often unnecessarily) to the pressure of modern life.
In order to make flexible working work for employees and businesses, what is really needed is a culture shift so that businesses and the people who work within truly accept that working in a slightly (or even drastically) different way is perfectly valid if the job gets done and the business’ objectives are met. After all, there is more than one way to skin a cat*
In the Consultation, the Government states: “We want to stimulate cultural change to make flexible working practices the norm, which we know will require more than just legislation. We will therefore also be developing non-legislative measures to promote flexible working opportunities both for those with a job and for those looking for one.” (Preamble, page 2)
The Government established a Working Group to promote business benefits of flexible working. Its remit was detailed in the Consultation as having the purpose of “generat[ing] practical ideas and outputs to encourage greater availability of flexible working, based on improved understanding of the business benefits and of how flexible working can practically work.” (at page 14)
A progress report was promised as part of the response to the Consultation and it is those pages I will be making a beeline for when the response is published. Or at least, just as soon as the document churns its way out of my ancient printer in my home office. It is those measures the Government proposes above and beyond the legislation to meet its objective of “genuine culture change on flexible working”** that will demonstrate to us that it has not only held its nerve, but is also prepared to put its money where its mouth is.
*apologies to cat lovers
**at page 13