The battle for flexible working

The end of restrictions marks the next phase in an almighty battle to push forward flexible working rights.

keyboard with 'flexible' working


The last week has seen a plethora of articles and surveys about the Government potentially changing the legislation on flexible working. So far there is no specific timetable and a Government spokesman denied that any changes would entail a right to work from home – something some newspapers trailed.

This was on the back of debates around making flexible working a default option ie that instead of workers having to request it and employees being able to turn it down on any of the broad-based reasons now allowed, employers would have to justify why a job couldn’t be done flexibly.

A TUC poll at the end of last week called for a right to flexible working for every worker, regardless of where they work or what job they do, for every job to be advertised with flexible working options clearly displayed and for employers to have far less discretion to refuse flexible working.

It highlighted another issue in the debate – the fact that flexible working has, in some quarters, become synonymous with remote working when many jobs cannot be done from home – and it warned of a growing gap between middle class office workers and often lower paid frontline workers. Flexible working, of course, encompasses much more than homeworking and there have been concerns that other forms of flexible working have been badly hit during the pandemic, especially part-time working.

All of this discussion is coming to a head because of the looming, although delayed, relaxing of restrictions and worries about people being forced back into the office and the relaxing or amendment of government guidance on working from home.

It is reported that the Government has learnt from last September and won’t be pushing the back to the office message and will leave it down to employers. Many have already trailed that they will be moving to hybrid working. Deloitte last week announced that it would allow employees to choose how often they come into the office and whether they come in at all – something that has been termed “ultra-flexible working”.

But what about those many firms that may not be as keen or have the resources to do hybrid or remote working properly? Other research shows a divide between what managers want and what workers want. The problem is that to implement hybrid and remote working requires support for managers. Expecting workers to get on with it and make it work without putting structures and support in place will mean employers don’t reap the rewards of new ways of working and could make for problems and miscommunication.

Labour announced in the last few days that workers should be given the right to work from home. Pro-flexible working critics argue that this implies a very rigid approach to flexible working. What if a remote worker’s circumstances change and they don’t want to work from home any more? What is needed is a changed mindset, they say, based on trust and mutual understanding. The problem is that that doesn’t provide any safeguards for people if the employer suddenly changes their position or a new manager comes in with a different mindset.

I remember having this kind of argument what seems like eons ago with agile working advocates about the lack of flexible childcare meaning coming into a meeting on one of your non-working from the office days is extremely stressful. In an ideal world, childcare should be agile, but childcare is in crisis and needs a complete rethink, something that doesn’t look likely any time soon.

So for now we need both flexible safeguards and more general culture change. And we need flexible working to be a standard part of working life, properly supported and thought through and not just a quick bolt-on extra. There are lots of good examples to learn from. It doesn’t have to be hugely expensive and the cost needs to be balanced against the loss of skilled workers and recruitment bills. That’s why it pays to spend time on getting it right now.

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