Is flexible working stuck in a rut?

A new survey suggests not much progress has been made on flexible working.

woman in wheelchair being taken care of by nurse, with doctor talking to another nurse in background


Is any progress being made on flexible working? This week the Government is to hear a call for flexible working to be the default for all new jobs, with employers having to show why a job can’t be worked flexibly rather than the other way around. It sounds like things have come a long way since the days when flexible working legislation used to be only accessible to parents and carers. The details of how that is enforced and how it works on the ground in terms of resources and in terms of jobs that present slightly more challenges for flexible working than the standard office job – retail, teaching, the NHS and many more.

Yet figures from the British Survey of Social Attitudes suggest a less rosy picture. The report compares statistics on attitudes to and take-up of flexible working before the flexible working legislation was extended to all eligible workers in 2014, meaning employees with over 26 weeks in a job could request flexible arrangements. It says “there is little evidence that the extension of the right to request [flexible working] has substantially altered the level or pattern of take-up of flexible working arrangements…Nor can we see any significant impact on employees’ perceptions of flexible working and its impact on their standing or future career prospects.”

Women were still more likely than men to work flexibly [50% as against 36%], but fewer women were working flexibly wheres the number of men working flexibly had increased slightly. This is probably linked to the rise in men and women working full time in the last few years. In fact, part time has fallen generally. Interestingly, the figures on flexible working [and on shared parental leave] are in a chapter headlined ‘women and work’, suggesting that attitudes on these issues are prevalent among researchers too.

The survey found there was still a lack of awareness that flexible working legislation applies to more than just parents and carers. Awareness was less among employees of smaller companies, while younger graduates were more likely to know their rights than others.

It seems fairly depressing, although the researchers also note that it was clear the majority of employees see flexible working as having (or having the potential to have) neutral or even positive impacts on their work and career.
They do also add a note of caution about the figures. Also, although they asked people whether they had worked certain flexible patterns such as homeworking [up slightly] and flexitime in the last 12 months, flexible working legislation is about permanent changes to workers’ terms and conditions and many workers have informal arrangements, working from home from time to time, for instance. There are so many different ways of working these days, with many people running businesses or doing gig jobs on the side or on zero hours contracts – often associated with more negative forms of flexible working. Are these captured by the data?

Yet it feels wrong that there has not been more of a shift in flexible working since 2012. Technology has enabled a lot more homeworking and it does seem to have become more acceptable to do it. Just thinking of the office where I work I know that people are doing it more than they did in the past, if only occasionally or a couple of days a week. Certainly going down the right to request path has its drawbacks, mainly because the reasons allowable for turning down a request are so vague as to be almost meaningless. Nevertheless, having a formal agreement means it is harder for an employer to suddenly change it at whim.

Perhaps what has happened is that flexibility has extended and deepened for those who already had some – those working in offices in the bigger cities in the bigger organisations… The big challenge is still to make the case for flexible working more generally and that takes dedicated work, talking to line managers about managing flexi teams, unpicking how jobs have been done up to now and how they could be done differently.

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