The long-awaited extension to the flexible working
regulations has now come into force (April 6th 2009). Now
in the UK around a third of the workforce have the right to
request flexible working - and their bosses should not unreasonably
(For an outline of how the process works see our article:
Requesting Flexible Work.)
This extension of regulations that first came into effect in
2003 has cause quite a stir in the media. It has won
strong support from politicians, unions and parents' and carers'
lobby groups, but some employers have expressed reservations or
All about work-life balance?
According to Harriet Harman, Minister for Women and Equality:
”Children don’t stop needing their parents’ time when
they reach their sixth birthday. We have already built a
strong foundation of support for families through the right
for parents with children under six to request flexible
work. But, as any parent knows, older children going through
the teenage years need just as much support and guidance.
"Families are the framework of our lives and matter
not just to individuals but to our communities, the economy,
and society as a whole. Mothers often tear their hair out
trying to balance earning a living with bringing up their
children and need more flexibility at work. And fathers want
to be able to play a bigger part in bringing up their
From the government's perspective, the measures seem to be
pretty much all about work-life balance. The two
departments pushing for it are Harriet Harman's Government
Equality Office (GEO) and the Department for Business and
Regulatory Reform (BERR - the old DTI).
On their websites GEO has Flexible Working as a sub-section
of "Women at Work". On the BERR website, it is a
subsection of "Work and Families", nestling alongside maternity
and paternity leave. And nearly all the press releases and
ministerial statements on the subject see flexible working as
being an issue mainly for parents and carers.
So this is the logic in the legislation:
- it relates strongly to the equalities agenda
- it's largely (though not exclusively) a women's issue
- the other two thirds of the work force have less of a
right or need to work flexibly.
The way the legislation is perceived and promoted have
created a somewhat stilted debate in the media - families on one
side, and business on the other.
For employers: costs and red tape? Or an opportunity
to work smarter?
For many employers, there is a simple - and not unfounded -
formula that goes:
Regulation = Cost.
And to some extent this is a truism. There is not only
the cost of compliance, but the cost in terms of getting to
grips with what any new regulation is all about. There are
rules and procedures, possibilities of appeals, tribunals and
judgements that are a distraction from the core focus of the
business, and can raise blood pressure when seen as yet more red
And those costs are more challenging for smaller businesses
that don't have large HR and legal departments to absorb the
For less enlightened employers, the new regulations also
suffer from guilt by association. Packaged along with
parental leave regulations that impose more direct costs on
employers and other workplace rights, it may seem as more
unwanted government interference. A quick survey of posts
to TV news and websites and comments on radio phone-ins will
show that this is quite a common viewpoint.
But the "Regulation = Cost" formula only applies if an
employer makes no attempt to reap any benefit from smarter
Many employers make positive choices about having a range of
flexible working practices to reduce overheads, boost
recruitment, increase loyalty and meet customer needs more
What about the other two thirds of the workforce?
Parents and carers may make up around a third of the
workforce. But what about the other two thirds?
From a business point of view there is no reason why Dave,
who has a child, can work from home two days a week while Sam,
who has no children under 16, cannot. She sits next
to him and does the same work - the only difference is in
So even though the process of requesting flexible work under
the legislation requires that the applicant ticks the box for
having caring responsibilities, we recommend that employers put
this criterion aside. They should treat any application
for flexible work as being 'reason neutral' from the personal
point of view. While the legislation encourages
discrimination between parents and others, employers should rise
above that and focus on the business impacts of different work
And it's best to come to the table prepared with preferred
options for working for different roles and tasks.
What will the impacts actually be?
The impacts of the 'right to request' will be cumulative over time - once a new
work pattern has been agreed, it is deemed as being permanent.
Though it's tempting for employers to treat flexible working as
a privilege that may be withdrawn at any time, under the
legislation this is not really on (check your policies to see if
you are getting this right!).
Of course things change in people's lives, and organisations
go through changes too. People will seek different kinds
of work pattern at different stages of their life, and at
different stages of their career. Organisations will
reorganise, roles will come and go, and people promoted or
shuffled sideways into jobs where the requirements of the work
and a particular flexible work style may be at odds.
Overall, however, we expect there will be a cumulative
impact, like waves coming further up the beach as the tide comes
in. I'm sure there'll be plenty who want to play Canute,
but the outcome will be the same.
At Flexibility we think the almost exclusive emphasis
on work-life balance is misguided, and generates polarised
debate that misses the point. Flexible working is really
about working smarter. And in the end, it will be a
growing consensus around this that will make flexibility the
norm rather than the exception in the workplace.