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10 million parents now have 'right to request' flexible working

But what about the other two thirds of the workforce, we ask ... ?

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 refuse requests.

(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 opposition.

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 children."

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 tape.

And those costs are more challenging for smaller businesses that don't have large HR and legal departments to absorb the extra workloads.

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 working practices.

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 flexibly. 

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 personal circumstances.

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 styles.

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.


6 April 2009


Flexibility comment

Flexibility of course supports the extension of the 'right to request flexible working that is enshrined in UK law.

However, we think that an excessive focus on work-life balance issues is turning off some employers - especially smaller businesses who often see it as more red tape, regulation and cost.














"The "Regulation = Cost" formula only applies if an
employer makes no attempt to reap any benefit from smarter working practices"






All material copyright Flexibility.co.uk 2009