Flexible working - where a policy isn't enough

By Genevieve Bach, Public Affairs Manager, @gen_bach

Recently, I was delighted to attend the launch of the Timewise Councils accreditation programme, which supports local authorities in driving change in flexible working practices and recognises the achievements of those who make a positive change.  Local authorities are big employers in their local communities (sometimes the largest single recruiter), as well as influencing other employers through the procurement of goods and services – so they are an important group to engage with in pursuit of the flexible working agenda.  The audience featured many local authority representatives, including Camden Council, who were named the first ever Timewise Council.

A key point to arise in the discussion was the importance of organisational culture in achieving truly flexible working practices that work for everyone – it’s not enough just to have a policy in place.  This is thrown into sharp focus when we consider trends in flexible working over the past decade or so.  Whilst we have seen a significant increase in the provision of flexible working by employers, according to the CIPD’s own data and that of the Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS), the uptake of flexible working by employees over the same period is less decisive, according to the DTI’s Work-Life Balance Survey*.  Look more closely, and there are a range of obstacles cited by both employers and employees to explain why flexible working practices are not more widespread.

Aside from general organisation and customer service pressures, employers are most likely to cite line manager attitudes as a barrier to offering flexible working to all employees, or improving their current offering – the idea that where managers can’t see their direct report/s, managing them becomes a lot more difficult.  On the employee side, it is clear that there is significant unmet demand for flexible working, and a number of employees who would like to work flexibly are not – and in many cases, are not even asking to.  Among the reasons cited for this are senior management attitudes and the nature of the employee’s work, but a number of employees also cited the attitudes of their colleagues as a reason why they would not seek to work flexibly, not wanting to risk being seen as a “part-timer” if others are working long hours in the office.  Again, this comes down to an organisation’s culture: having a policy in place is one thing, but it’s no use on its own – it must be supported by organisational values that promote flexibility as a benefit for business and employee alike, and complemented by line manager training where appropriate.

This is particularly important as the extension of the right to request flexible working to all employees looms closer.  CIPD research shows that many employers are going beyond the legal minimum expected of them, and are already offering flexible working to all their employees.  However, more needs to be done to support businesses who aren’t doing so, to do so in advance of the legislative change (due at the end of June).  Culture change won’t happen overnight, but without it, both organisations and their employees risk both losing out on the benefits to be had from embracing flexible working, and losing both current and future talent in our increasingly flexible labour market.

 *See Flexible Working: Provision and Uptake, CIPD, pp 30-31 for data sets

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