survey: Q & A

Flexible Working


Earlier this week, published the results of its annual survey, which showed over a fifth of working mums had had their flexible working requests turned down and that over half thought the reasons given were unjustified. Here we ask Gillian Nissim, founder of, some questions about the survey results: Are there not some jobs that cannot be done flexibly and has flexible working has gone as far as it can go? Is it harder for some employers, such as SMEs, to implement flexible working?

Gillian Nissim: We recognise that some employers struggle with flexible working and need support and sharing examples of best practice is a good way of providing this, as we do in our Best Practice report. Obviously not all jobs can have, for instance, homeworking, but employers in many fields can think more creatively about how they adapt their work patterns to meet growing employee demand [including dads, older people, Gen Y employees and, of course, the growing number of families where both parents work – and sometimes where both work full time] and increase efficiency, productivity and the motivation of staff. It’s about changing the mindset. This comes before anything else. Once employers embrace this and see the business benefits in terms of greater efficiency and productivity and more motivated staff then the logistics of how you achieve that fall into place. We have many examples of traditional industries which have looked carefully at the way they work and seen the advantages that could accrue from changing set patterns of how they do things and questioning whether the traditional way is actually the best and suited for the 21st century. They include BAE Systems, social services, rail and the hotel industry.

WM: Why do you think so many mums are returning to new jobs or retraining? The survey shows 65% are interested in retraining and that 62% of mums returned from maternity leave to a new job.

GN: Part of the reason may be because their former job involved a lot of travel, meetings and long hours, but definitely that is not the only one and many employers are finding solutions to this by deploying people in less client-facing roles, adapting job roles, using technology such as conference calls which increase efficiency and cut travel budgets and allowing more homeworking in a bid to retain skills and experience.

WM: The statistics show 55% of women are earning less pro rata than before they had children. Is that because they have taken less onerous jobs? Is it therefore their choice?

GN: The survey shows that many women are willing to take less pay for flexibility, but it can’t be right that people who have years of experience and skills are effectively forced to take a pay cut because employers can’t find a way to use those skills properly or that a flexible job should be paid at a lower rate than a traditional one. It should be about what you do, not how you do it.

WM: The survey shows a big demand for homeworking – it is the most valued form of flexible working and the most likely to encourage women to work full time – but surely many jobs cannot be done from home?

GN: True, but many jobs have aspects of them that can be done from home, for instance, anything requiring strategic thinking, writing up, etc. Doing so from home can make people more productive as there are fewer distractions. Research shows homeworkers tend to work longer hours rather than be “shirkers”.

WM: Why are job shares still so unpopular with only six per cent of women in the survey being on job shares?

GN: I think this is mainly due to perceptions about job shares – it seems complicated to employers and maybe expensive as they have to pay two sets of National Insurance. However, they get more than one person’s experience. I think there is a lot of education work to be done on the benefits of job shares. When done right, they can be very beneficial to companies. We have a job share in our marketing team and it means we get the best of two people’s different skillsets at less than the cost of hiring two different people.

WM: The survey shows 49% of mums think employers discriminate against working mums with only 12% saying they don’t. Can you understand why an employer would discriminate, for instance, an SME who has two pregnant women in a team of five?

GN: It can be difficult and I know the challenges SMEs face as a small business owner myself. But the costs of retaining that experience are less than hiring and training someone new and most of SMP can be reclaimed. Also you have to ask what is the alternative? Not hiring women because they might get pregnant? Given women are the majority of university entrants that does not seem to be a wise business decision. Shared Parental Leave allows greater sharing of leave so men too might become a “problem” in the future. The challenge is having a work system that takes account of the fact people have children, get sick, have elderly parents that get ill or infirm and so forth, that is fit for the lives we lead now.

WM: The survey shows men have more flexibility than in the past, but still only 3.5% work part time. Are men having to basically support women who want to work part time?

GN: Obviously the decision over whether one partner works part time or not is one for each couple to make and is often based on issues such as finances, but it is clear from research that men are more reluctant to ask for flexible working and face peer pressure not to. They need more support to do so such as positive role models and senior leaders who walk the walk and don’t just talk the talk on flexible working. There is quite a bit of work going on on this front as employers realise that more men want to share childcare and that that is linked to women’s career progression too.

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