Flexible working is not the big bad wolf, Sir James

In a week of snow and strikes, flexible working is maybe not the big bad wolf some business leaders make it out to be and can actually keep businesses operating more or less as normal.

Woman sits writing in her diary - close up


There’s been a lot of angry statements from the usual suspects over the proposed changes to the flexible working legislation. The Government has said it backs moving to a day one right to request flexible working. For Sir James Dyson the proposal is  “staggeringly self-defeating”. For him flexible working seems to be wholly about working from home, which is a bit narrow, given that flexibility embraces a whole range of things from flexi time to compressed hours, term time working, annualised hours and more. And if he’s that upset about remote working, I’m willing to bet he’s not a supporter of part-time hours either. It’s kind of entertaining, given that Sir James specialises in home care products. Shouldn’t his workforce reflect his consumers a bit better?

In any event, he’s not the only senior business leader to come up with this kind of outraged statement. What they all have in common is that they are a certain type of male leader for whom the old-fashioned way of working works really, really well. So well that they just can’t see past it. You would think that such rigidity of thinking does not make the best business sense at a time when everything is changing all the time.

For these leaders, total devotion to work is the be all and end all. Forget anything outside work. Nothing else counts. Maybe that is the way they have made it to the top, but only a very few get that far and for the rest it’s not only not enough, but it is just not possible in an economy where the social infrastructure is falling apart. Yet, unsurprisingly, you don’t see Sir James promoting the need for more social infrastructure. Moreover, Elon Musk’s masochistic work til you drop cry seems not to have been the success he might have hoped for. Has he not noticed that everyone is already burnt out and they want and need something different?

What’s more here we are in a week of strikes and snow, with schools closed at the beginning of the week, reverting to working from home because it’s the only way to get things done or at least to get them done efficiently, without spending hours of your day trying to get from your home to a building miles away where you do almost exactly the same thing. I know there is the much touted collaboration value of a shared building and there may be something in that, but surely in a 9-5 working week most people don’t spend all their time brainstorming and collaborating and perhaps there are better or different ways to do that or maybe we can devise them?

What is clear is that the old ways are just not working for many. I’ve seen too many women walk away, set up on their own, get a ‘local’ job on less pay, less challenge. And it’s not just women.

The price of devotion to a bunch of bricks and mortar is too high for many.

In any event, despite all the fluster, the flexible work legislation is incredibly weak. Employers can turn requests down for very vague reasons without a statutory right to appeal – and we know that many do. But that’s beside the point. Flexible working is not a threat and treating it as such is not going to move your business forward. It’s really not that scary. Talk to the many employers who offer it and see. It can and does work.

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