Flexible working decisions on the ground

There are still too many cases of flexible working being turned down based on a particular manager’s bias. The ONS figures and worries about skills shortages show that this has to change.

Should zero hours contracts be banned


The other day a mum told me her employer – a supermarket – has turned down her flexible working request to finish her shift an hour early. Her son has just been diagnosed with diabetes and by finishing an hour early she can ensure that he is not left on his own for an hour before school and that she can do his injections without being rushed. Her partner has already altered his hours, but cannot cover that crucial one hour in the morning.

The employer argues, along the lines of flexible working legislation, that the request would have a detrimental effect on others and on the business. People’s shopping habits have changed so there is more demand late at night and in the early hours plus supermarket deliveries have not been running to schedule so it is hard to cover for delivery uncertainty. We all know only too well about lorry driver shortages and empty shelves so that might be a reasonable judgement.

However, the crucial point is that the person in charge of deliveries says it does not affect the hour the woman wants to cut and the HR team simply cannot understand the decision. It sounds like a particular manager just doesn’t want to give any ground. The woman’s union also supports her. She should win.

It just shows, however, how difficult these issues can be and how much they come down to the detail and to individual decisions and biases. At a time of employee shortages, as shown in yesterday’s Office for National Statistics figures, you would think employers would be fairly keen to retain staff who know what they are doing and not to incur the cost and stress of recruitment and training. Yet some are still resistant to requests for slight alterations in hours to accommodate challenging family circumstances.

This needs to change – and fast. Such managers may be in the minority and they may need more support and training themselves to manage flexible teams, but it is clear that the economy is in for an extremely bumpy ride over the next months and that we need to look more carefully at how any practical barriers to working can be overcome.That means investment in childcare, support for managers facing flexible working requests, rewards or some other kind of acknowledgement for managers who successfully manage flexible [and diverse] teams and capitalising on the flexible working changes we have seen during the pandemic – from remote to flexi hours to part-time hours and so forth – rather than bullying people who don’t want to or can’t work full time in an office.

All of this is about short-term necessity, but there needs to be some longer term planning involved too that looks at the forthcoming crises not just before or when they have hit but well in advance, for instance, the impact of demographic changes on the workforce, and has some sort of vision for the future, rather than just hoping that everything is just a blip and that technology will solve it.

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