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Flexible Working hanging in the balance?

Recommendations for government from think tank Demos

'The government should be resolute in implementing a maximal rather than a minimal framework for entrenching and extending flexible working practices.’

This is the ‘core message’ from a new report by the think-tank Demos on Reinventing the Workplace.

Over the past decade the government in the UK has introduced and extended legislation that gives the right to request flexible working to parents and carers, plus a range of other measures around maternity, paternity and carers’ leave.

Now with a move last year from a centre-left to a centre-right government, many of the issues are being revisited. The Coalition Manifesto made it clear that the government intends to widen the right to request flexible work to all workers [link] – a move that we have always said was necessary in order to be fair.

However, during the consultation over the extension, it appears there is strong lobbying from industry groups to exempt small business from any new employment regulations and/or to move away from a legislative approach to having instead a Code of Practice to support flexible working. Regulation, so the argument goes, is the enemy of economic growth - and growth is of paramount importance so we can claw our way out of the recession.

The Demos report argues strongly against this view.  It argues on the contrary that a strong and coherent stance on flexible working is essential for growth.  And it's essential looking beyond the recession too, to create a healthy business culture in an age of demographic and technological change.

New data on flexible working

The report contains some new data on flexible working from a specially commissioned poll of 500 organisations and over 1500 employees. There’s also more in-depth qualitative and focus group data from ‘vanguard employers’ John Lewis, BT and Women Like Us.

According to their poll, at least one form of flexible working is now offered by 91% of employers, and 60% of employees take up at least one form on offer, usually some form of flexitime/variable hours or part-time working.

83% of requests to work flexibly are approved. However, the over 55s are the most likely to have their request turned down.

Echoing other studies, this report found that large organisations are most likely to have formal policies on flexibility, but micro-businesses (1-10 employees) are more likely to have a greater proportion of their workforce actually working flexibly. Medium-sized businesses (50-249 employees) are most likely to refuse requests.

Making the political and social case for flexibility

The report gives some good examples of the business case for flexible working, citing evidence of reducing absenteeism, improving recruitment and increasing productivity.

However, what it focuses on is the political case for taking a strong line on flexibility:

“The key question is not whether businesses can afford flexible working arrangements, but whether in the 21st century countries like Britain can afford to forego them”

This is an appeal to social necessity rather than business necessity. There is an appeal to corporate social responsibility too.

But in the current ‘cold climate’, I wonder just how persuasive is this appeal to corporate virtue or enlightened self-interest? The risk here is of unwittingly reinforcing the idea that flexible working is, in fact, a cost to be borne for the wider good of society.

The recommendations

The report makes several recommendations to 'normalise' flexible working, underpinning this with legislative action, a code of conduct and a system of accreditation.  The recommendations are aimed squarely at government, rather than employers, though many of the messages in the report should be of interest to all organisations.

The recommendations are to:

  • extend and normalise flexible working to all employees by making the right to request universal, a right enshrined in law
  • enhance shared responsibility between employers and employees through a code of practice which clearly defines what flexible working is and the various legitimate reasons for refusing it
  • change the minimum qualifying period and removing the 12-month cap for reapplications
  • give recognition to vanguard employers, target support to those struggling to implement flexible working practices and monitor progress to ‘name and shame’ recalcitrant employers
  • make shared parental leave affordable for both partners and employers through a contributory ‘carers account’, as happens in Nordic countries
  • extend and formalise carers’ leave
  • enable all workers, regardless of status, role or sector, to take up volunteering - this links flexible working with the government's Big Society* ideas.

So on the issue of legislation or code of conduct, their verdict is for both.

Flexibility comment

Overall, this is a fascinating and thought-provoking report, with some interesting new data. It strongly makes the case for keeping up the momentum in increasing opportunities to work flexibly. And we entirely agree about the need to have 'a maximal rather than a minimal framework for entrenching and extending flexible working practices'.

While there is much that is interesting and valuable in the report, though, one can’t help feeling it has a somewhat institutional approach to flexible working.  Flexible working here is too strongly tied into the governments' family-friendly/parental and carers' leave/employee right-to-request agenda, which is really only half the story.

And there’s so much more going on out there in the developing world of flexible working. And it’s in the area of leading practice in business – despite the input of the vanguard employers – that the report could have done much more.  One doesn't really get the feel of the dynamism and energy that comes from transforming businesses - and public sector organisations - with new flexible/agile/smart ways of working.

There also seems to be an idea in the report that flexible working is something that can be nailed down and regulated.  The idea of having a code of conduct that defines all the forms of flexible working misunderstands the continuous evolution of flexible working:

'A non-statutory code of practice can help improve understanding of flexible working, including by clearly defining different flexible working arrangements...A code of practice can help inform employees about what is a reasonable case for request, the forms of flexible working that are available and which flexible working arrangements most suit their need while not burdening business. It could also help guide employers to understand when it is most reasonable to say ‘no’ – more than the eight reasons currently in the law.'

Who could write such a document, one that would cover all bases and not be out of date the moment it was written? Such a mechanistic or bureaucratic approach would not work, and I'd dread to see anyone try it. Well, unless they paid me a lot of money to do it ...

And what about the proposed idea of government-backed accreditation and 'name and shame' approaches?  There are several kinds of awards and 'marks of excellence' out there already.  I'm not sure a centralised codification of this would help.

Finally, the focus on extending the right to request means that there is no critique of its key failing – that it encourages a reactive and ad hoc approach to flexibility, rather than a strategic one. If employers develop flexible working one request at a time, it will indeed be burdensome and expensive, possibly also downright chaotic. It's in developing a strategic approach that employers probably most need guidance.

* For our non-UK readers - and possibly some of our UK readers too who are puzzled by the concept - the 'Big Society' as a concept is meant to contrast with 'Big Government'.  That is, it's not up to the state to do everything for us, and we need to get back more to ideas of community self-help, philanthropy, charitable works and volunteering to improve the areas we live in.


August 2011

Further Information


Reinventing the Workplace, a Demos report by Dan Leighton and Tom Gregory, argues that it would be both economically short-sighted and socially irresponsible to roll back the progress made over the past decade, due to pressures in a time of economic uncertainty.

The recession will not go on forever, the authors argue, whereas the need for flexible work has been a long time coming, as the care responsibilities of those in employment have increased with the growth of shared parenting, more mothers returning to work and an ageing population.

This thought-provoking and detailed report is definitely worth reading.  Even though we don't entirely agree with its recommendations, it's full of insight and new survey data on flexible working.

Download the report here






All material copyright Flexibility.co.uk 2009