Why do some people still not get flexible working?

A tribunal case yesterday not only highlighted how some managers still don’t get flexible working, but also wider ignorance usually by people who have never had to be responsible for childcare.

Gavel with employment written on it, representing employment law


Sometimes it seems as if the universe just wants you to give up. I was on the school run – a one-hour round trip due to traffic issues and the like and having to pull over momentarily to ring the GP for my son because it is virtually impossible to get through to get an appointment – when an item came on on the radio.

It was about an estate agent who had won a discrimination case because her employer turned down her request to work four days and to leave at 5pm to do the nursery pick-up. The callers to the radio programme seemed to be mostly on the side of the employer. Couldn’t the woman afford a nanny? Wasn’t she contracted to do a full-time job and how can small employers operate if people willy nilly change their hours? Won’t employers stop employing women of ‘child-bearing age’? So far, so depressing. Later in the day another tribunal ruling reported the case of a mother who was effectively pushed out of her role while on maternity leave after a failure to consult her about a restructure.

It’s like nothing has moved on at all. In the radio discussion there was the occasional mention of whether there might be a dad who could share the pick-up, but that was about it. One person said it was about negotiation – and that is right. Flexible working is about negotiation, but both partners in a negotiation have to be prepared to shift. I was surprised, I’m not sure why, that the host [a well-known, experienced – male – journalist] just didn’t seem to understand how flexible working requests work. He kept harping on about how contracted hours are contracted hours.

Flexible working legislation is designed to allow people to alter their contracted hours. The problem is that it is very, very weak – I don’t know of any successful legal case that has been taken purely in relation to it. It only seems to work if it is tied to an anti-discrimination claim, which ironically means that it won’t work for dads who want to work flexibly. It relies on only mums needing to work flexibly.

Also, there are so many reasons employers can turn down a flexible working request. It simply doesn’t work if employers are not at least willing to engage in discussion and to think more broadly.

Presumably the woman would be paid less on a four-day week finishing an hour early every day, yet by retaining her knowledge and avoiding recruitment and training costs wouldn’t she still be doing more than a new recruit? Could she do some of her work from home later, given everyone now expects access to services online these days and at times when they are not at work? Are there busier days or times that she could provide extra cover for or could others cover those busier times in return for her covering for them during less busy times? Maybe normal office hours are not the best set–up for estate agents. Maybe it’s worth being open to different ways of doing things.

Equality at home

The main issue, as Sophie Walker so rightly pointed out on Twitter, is that the manager has probably never had to do the nursery run. When I was working for a newspaper with a very unsympathetic manager, I fantasised about doing a life swap with him where he got to live my life for a week and I got to live his, including the long lunches [I always had my lunch at my desk while working so I could leave on time to avoid a nursery fine]. Just walk one week in my shoes, I thought.

But then I realised that even doing the pick-ups does not come close to the emotional and cumulative pressure that I felt under. He’d have to be getting up to deal with teething babies all night, feeling the sense of never being enough no matter how hard you try, doing all the forward planning and so forth. A week of doing the school/nursery run is not nearly enough, I thought. Yet understanding and making small accommodations makes all the difference. A friend of mine spent years being stressed because her employer expected her to be in at 9am for a meeting. It made no difference to anyone else if the meeting was at 9.15 so she could drop her kids at school and get the bus, but her employer wouldn’t move it. So she was constantly late and stressed.

I’ve spent years writing blogs to try and get people to understand what it’s like [I’m going through them now as I’m writing a book for my children about their growing up because my son said he was worried he would forget his sister]. But, of course, the people who need to read them won’t. How do you make them listen? At least the tribunal listened. A society that doesn’t accommodate the needs of families, that expects women to do or sacrifice everything, is not a healthy one for anyone because, like it or not, we are all connected to each other some way or another.

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