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Although people have been talking about flexible working in one way or another for decades – the economist John Maynard Keynes declared in 1930 that technological advances would lead to a 15-hour working week – we may now be at the tipping point where work takes on an entirely different character.

That is not to say it hasn’t changed in the recent past. Flexible working in one form or another has already transformed the working lives of many people and in the UK more firms than not offer alternatives to the traditional working day with its fixed time and place.

But they’ve never been the norm. The default has always been the 9 to 5, inherent in laws that offer people the right to request flexible working as an alternative. That polarity may be about to switch, catalysed by a new confluence of social, demographic and technological change.

The MP Helen Whately has introduced a  Flexible Working Bill to Parliament that would oblige employers to make flexible working a characteristic of all job roles in some way or other, unless there was a sound business case for why the role could not be carried out in a flexible way.

Introducing her bill to Parliament, Whately said the traditional 40-hour, five-day working week “made sense in an era of single-earner households and stay-at-home mums”, but it did not accurately reflect the reality of how people want to live and work today. She argued flexible working would help close the gender pay gap, assist parents to share childcare responsibilities and help businesses retain staff who might seek better working arrangements elsewhere.

“At the moment, too many women are reluctantly dropping out of work or going part-time after having children because their employers won’t allow them flexibility,” Whately said, “It entrenches the assumption that men are the breadwinners and women are the homemakers. As a result, men don’t get to spend as much time as they might like with their children, women miss out on career opportunities, and the country loses out on the contribution they could and would like to make if only they could do slightly different hours or work some days from home.”

Her proposed Bill comes at a time when growing questions are being asked about the stumbling block created by uneven parental leave rights. This issue has prompted its own Government consultation on the issue, a move welcomed by the CIPD who said: “The current arrangements don’t go far enough to allow many fathers to take an active role in being with their child in the early days or to allow families balance and choice over how they share caring responsibilities during the first year of a child’s life. Having this choice is also essential if we are to address the ‘motherhood penalty’ many women face in their working life, in terms of pay and progression.”

Helen Whateley’s broader argument also finds support in a new report from PwC which suggests that ways of working that suit a more diverse workforce could transform the UK economy. Although the Labour Market Performance index, which combines results from PwC’s Youth Employment, Golden Age and Women in Work indices, finds the UK is in a creditable 19th place amongst OECD countries, if it could match Sweden for the employment of women, younger people and older people the country would enjoy a 12 percent boost in GDP, equivalent to around £250 billion.

Organisations are increasingly aware of the need to create workplaces and cultures that can address the needs of an increasingly diverse workforce and so many are ahead of the Government’s proposed legislation. According to research from consultancy Vistage, nearly two-thirds of UK CEOs believe organisations that fail to offer flexible working to employees will face a struggle to attract talent and more than half say they’ve already written flexible working options into standard employment contracts.

Workers themselves are inevitably in favour of more flexible working, but this is perhaps the first time that they share a common viewpoint with managers on the issue. According to a TotalJobs survey, nearly 80 percent of employees said that they would be less likely to leave a job if their employer allowed them to have flexible working hours. Interestingly, this is more or less equivalent to 75 percent of employers, who claim flexible working boosts retention rates.

Of course, flexible working is about space as well as time. The flexible working issue has sometimes been presented as a zero sum game, in which people are either working from home or working in an office. But that isn’t what people want from work either. They want to be around their colleagues, they want to feel part of something greater and firms know that proximity is essential for the sharing of certain types of information and the creation of ideas.

What happens in practice is that people choose where and when to work. And that includes whenever they are in the office. A new wave of office designs not only addresses the requirements of a diverse workforce with different needs and preferences it also enables flexible working across the organisation by giving people a choice of places to work, socialise and relax whenever they are in the office. 

This is a new era for work and while we have already seen huge changes in working cultures and environments, there is growing evidence that a new normal has arrived.

 

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