The rights and wrongs of flexible working

Author: Jennifer Liston Smith, Head of Thought Leadership

A BBC survey of 1,700 published last month showed the majority of workers prefer a mix of remote and onsite working, while half of senior managers worry that remote working will damage creativity and collaboration, and the career chances of younger workers. These are all valid points, yet it’s concerning how often media commentary seems to treat the whole discussion as a binary either/or.

The best of both

The point about hybrid is the blend. Those of us who have been refreshed by recent workplace get-togethers have come firmly to the view that collaboration onsite has its place. It is particularly valued by new joiners, returners and people in their early career. Equally, the last 18 months have demonstrated that there is value in remote working, in terms of wellbeing and balance, and also in productivity.

Our workforces have achieved great things during these constrained times, and for many that happened when schools and childcare settings were mostly closed. With all kinds of education back in place, there is more choice, less zoom-bombing, and most employers are embracing the rethink. For knowledge workers, it is not so much a case of ‘not returning to the office’ as transforming the way we use office spaces. They are just one of the ways we work.

What do you think?

A good moment, then, for a BEIS (Government Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) consultation on flexible working, launched on 23rd September and open until 1st December. It proposes a ‘Day 1’ right to request flexibility (rather than waiting the current 26 weeks before requesting). Launching the consultation, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said: ’Empowering workers to have more say over where and when they work makes for more productive businesses and happier employees. It was once considered a ‘nice to have’, but by making requests a day one right, we’re making flexible working part of the DNA of businesses across the country.’ The consultation offers an important opportunity to take part in shaping policy in this area.

It will still be a right to request, that must be considered and can be turned down. The consultation does examine whether the business reasons allowed for declining a request are all still valid, yet there is still much debate about whether the proposals go far enough. Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the TUC has underlined the difference between a right and a right to request: ‘Under these plans employers will still have free rein to turn down all or any requests for flexible working. Instead of tinkering around the edges, ministers should change the law so that workers have the legal right to work flexibly from the first day in the job. The right to ask nicely is no right at all.’

Getting it wrong

One person who asked nicely was maternity returner Alice Thompson. Her well-thought-out request for flexibility was turned down without any consideration and – after quitting, followed by an arduous slog through tribunals – she was awarded nearly £185K in compensation. It was indirect sex discrimination to give no weight to Ms Thompson’s request to manage her workload around her childcare. In can be pretty painful all round when it goes badly wrong. Alice Thompson’s story has made headlines from Breakfast TV  to the HR media to LadBible all of which reported it seriously and sympathetically. In her interview on ITV’s This Morning, Alice Thompson speaks eloquently and persuasively about challenging her former employer in order to prevent her young daughter experiencing the same obstacles in 20 or 30 years’ time.

Getting it right

Last month I wrote about our new Parental Leave Benchmark report. That survey of nearly 700 employers showed that overall, there is increasing commitment to empowering new parents through the transition and on their return. There is a strong trend toward enhanced leave provisions and programmes of coaching and mentoring, as well as flexibility. This month we amplify the other voice, that of the parents themselves who have experienced parental leave programmes put in place by their employers.

In a survey of our clients’ employees who have experienced the online / app-based Parental Leave Toolkit and/or Parent Transition Coaching, 88% agreed that having a parental leave programmes shows support for wellbeing, with the majority (52%) strongly agreeing. 88% of respondents agreed that having the programme in place helps working parents keep their career on track. In the same survey, 100% of managers accessing the programme agreed with the same statements.

We regularly receive feedback such as this recent example: ‘I was on the verge of leaving my team and potentially my employer. Now I'm not. I'm excited for the future and the opportunities it holds. The coaching has been transformational for me.’

The tipping point

It often does not take much to get it right. It means equipping managers to have positive and encouraging conversations. It means treating parents seriously, giving attention to their family wellbeing and to their career ambitions. It means calling out leaders who wave off people taking parental leave as if it’s the end of an era, rather than making small adjustments to encourage their return, such as well-planned Keeping in Touch days and a phased return. It means encouraging networks and employee resource groups as well as drawing on specialist transition coaching to make space for the individual and the manager to think through the challenges, build confidence and figure out practical solutions.

When we don’t recognise the transition, it can become a watershed moment. The Gender Pay Gap widens and grows after parenthood. And that’s among the people who stay, rather than those who leave for more family-inclusive competitors. Our clients regularly see a 12 to 14 percentage point rise in their maternity return rates once a programme of coaching and support is in place.

The Rethink

As we shape new ways of working, there are many groups to include consciously in our plans, working parents among them. Working carers, too: the consultation above also puts forward a right to a week’s additional leave for carers.

As well as responding to the public policy consultation, we all need to consult internally, and listen. We must work out together how best to achieve wellbeing, productivity and inclusion at a time when there is a real conversation opened up and a real chance to redesign our working habits and cultures.