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Employers and flexible working: Is it really such a stretch?

Employers and flexible working: Is it really such a stretch?

Flexible working can be the vital key to unlocking employment opportunities and progression for single parents, who must balance the roles of breadwinner and primary carer for their families.

We also know that adopting flexible working policies brings big benefits to employers, helping them to recruit and retain an engaged workforce.

So why, in 2014, are flexible work opportunities still so scarce? How do we finally find a cure for the 9-5 obsession and embrace alternative working options?

As part of Gingerbread’s campaign to Make it work for single parents, we held an online discussion to try and answer some of those questions. We brought together some of the leading voices in the field: Siobhan Endean, National Officer for Equalities at Unite; Jonathan Swan, Policy and Research Manager at Working Families; Hannah Murphy, Policy Adviser at the CBI; and Nicola Kilvington, Head of Strategy, Performance, and Information at Camden Council, the UK’s first ever Timewise Council. 

From the outset, our panel agreed that the current availability of flexible work options in Britain could be described, at best, as “patchy”. Jonathan told us that Working Families hear from more than 3000 people every year who have been badly treated at work after requesting to work flexibly.

Part of the reason for this, said Siobhan, is the lack of any real legislative framework to help spread and support flexible work practices. Right to request is only available after six months’ employment and outside of that the regulations are fairly limited.
What’s needed, the panel agreed, is a big cultural change in how everyone thinks about flexible work. It needs to become the norm, rather than the exception.

But how do we achieve that change?

Government action can play a major role in boosting the rights of workers to request flexible work. Siobhan said she would like to see jobs advertised as flexible from day one. This would help to tackle the problem that many employees don’t ask for flexible work because they’re worried their employer will disapprove of such a request.

Nicola also emphasised the role that public sector employers, such as councils, can play in providing a leading example to their local businesses of how flexible working can operate in practice.

Hannah pointed out, however, that it is not just a case of passing laws to make flexible work the norm – employers still feel that logistical barriers stand in their way of opening up flexible work options to all their staff. In particular, employers often feel they are being asked to perform a difficult juggling act: on the one hand meeting the needs of employees that apply for flexi-time whilst making sure that this doesn’t put additional strain on those that don’t.

The panel agreed that communication is the key to tackling these kinds of sticky situations. Where there is a workforce union in operation then they can negotiate with employers to find the best solution that works for everyone. Siobhan added that the Acas guide on flexible working is a particularly useful resource and that she’d like to see more of the same being produced by central government.

Ultimately, the panel acknowledged that the shift over to a more flexible working model is going to depend on a mix of government leadership, improved communication channels between employers and employees, and the sharing of best practice between organisations. Each ingredient will help us to travel in the right direction and move towards a tipping point when flexible work becomes an everyday part of working life in Britain.

To read more about Gingerbread’s campaign to Make it work for single parents, visit our website here.