Flexible working needs to be normalised so that people don’t have to sacrifice job quality for flexibility – and that begins at the top.
A study last week highlighted the anger of women who feel forced to choose between flexible working and a good job with prospects. The Global Institute for Women’s Leadership report showed that women were mainly making the sacrifices associated with flexible working unwillingly. While men are less likely to be granted flexible working, the report showed that those who had it viewed it much more positively. We all know – or have been – women who have reduced their hours only to be sidelined or to end up working full-time hours for part-time pay or who have swapped a secure job with promotion prospects for insecurity and no progress.
That’s why it is vital that any discussions of flexible working include an emphasis on monitoring flexible workers progress and experience. Working Families has called, for instance, for gender pay audits to include monitoring of data on career progress for flexible workers. This is something employers could start doing now. The figures would be interesting. The Government is currently consulting on flexible working proposals, including a day one right to flexible working. That is something campaigners have been calling for for years because so many flexible workers are stuck in the job they are currently in due to a lack of flexible jobs and difficulty negotiating flexibility at interview. Day one flex will make a big impact, but there is so much more that could be done to normalise flexible working and ensure those who work flexibly don’t get left behind.
But the impetus to change must come from the top – not just from senior employers, but from political leaders. Too often, certainly recently, we have heard unhelpful comments from political leaders, mainly about remote working as that seems to be the form of flex that has got the most attention nowadays, although it is by no means the only kind. There may be commercial reasons to get people back on trains and into city centres, despite high levels of Covid still in circulation.
Those points can be made, however, without making negative and partisan comments about remote working. Statements by senior managers or leaders which denigrate flexible working, for example, suggesting that remote working is second rate or indeed not actually working at all, perpetuate a two-tier system where those who work flexibly are seen as not being of equal value to a standard worker. This needs to change as it contributes to negative perceptions, bullying and biased approaches to flexible working requests.
Research shows that flexible working is something that many workers want, that it can help to increase motivation and productivity, open up new talent pools and attract and retain workers. Flexible working should not be about ideology – it is just about opening up people’s options and providing more choice in how, where and when we work.