Despite all the hardship it caused, the pandemic also offered the chance of a lifetime. By proving that people could work responsibly—and often more efficiently—from home, and demonstrating how care for loved ones could exist alongside, not in opposition to, our jobs, it felt like there couldn’t possibly be a return to the Before Times. Or at least we wouldn't be forced to go back to the office full-time. There could be a better way of working. But as the months wore on, and British politicians’ calls to “get off our Peletons” and return to offices grew louder, any hope of a flexible-working revolution in the UK has been quelled.
The latest in a bumper pack of bitter pills to swallow is the government’s consultation to make flexible working “the default.” Launched by the UK Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in late September, it invited organizations to submit views on whether and how to enhance flexible-working rights in the UK. It’s happening because the Conservative Party promised to “encourage flexible working” in its 2019 general election manifesto. Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said proposals would empower workers to “have more say over where and when they work.”
Currently, after 26 weeks of service with their employer, every employee in the UK has the right to make one flexible working request a year. Once a request has been made, if it’s rejected, the employee must wait a year before submitting a new request. The consultation aimed to change this to a right-to-request from day one, enable more than one request per year, and reduce the deadline for a response. Currently, an employer must respond within three months of receiving a request.
The consultation also proposed a reevaluation of valid reasons for rejecting a request and introduced a requirement for an employer to suggest alternatives where a request to work flexibly cannot be accommodated. All these, if embraced simultaneously by the government, could instigate wide-ranging reform in how we work. But if, as is predicted, only one new law is actually introduced—solidifying the immediate right-to-request—the consultation has been as much use as a chocolate fireguard.
As well as proposing legislative reform, the government’s Flexible Taskforce, an advisory consortium comprising business groups, trade unions, charities, and government departments, has been advising on practical and legal issues, including health and safety, remote working, equality and fairness, and performance management. The three-month window for businesses and organizations to submit their evidence closed on December 1, with the outcome likely to be published in the first half of 2022.
“We’ve seen that this commitment to ‘flexible working as the default’ is all rhetoric. There’s no substance to it whatsoever,” says Joeli Brearley, chief executive and founder of Pregnant Then Screwed. “The government will move the right to request flexible working to day one of employment because it’s the simplest thing they can do to look like they’ve fulfilled their manifesto pledge.” Despite significant contributions and evidence submitted by employees and employers, it’s the only legal amendment we can expect. As Alice Arkwright, digital projects officer at the British Trade Union Congress (TUC) points out, even that is just “tinkering around the edges of legislation that hasn’t worked.” Indeed, the Right to Request model was introduced for parents and caregivers in 2003, and in the two decades since, it has instigated meagre change. In 2013, 74 percent of employees did no flexible work, compared to 70 percent in 2020.
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Swapping when an employee can ask for flexible work will do nothing to dispel the culture of fear around making requests in the first place. Some 42 percent of working mothers believe there’s no point in asking because they will be rejected, while the same number wouldn’t ask for it in a job interview because they believe they will face discrimination or simply ruin their chances of getting hired. These worries are justified: The majority (86 percent) have faced discrimination and disadvantage because of their flexible working arrangements. Half of the same survey respondents have had their requests rejected. Pregnant Then Screwed, which runs an employment rights help line, has seen the number of rejections of flexible working requests double over the past year.
At the moment, there are eight reasons warranting the rejection of an employee’s alternative working request. “These are far too broad and far too vague—they allow employers to reject any and all requests,” says Arkwright. In its consultation response, the TUC has included legal advice on how to narrow those criteria using objective justification in the 2010 Equality Act. “It’s an extension of the decisions they’re already making when someone with a protected characteristic puts in a flexible working request—they need to demonstrate a very good reason as to why they can’t offer it.”
In addition to narrowing the rejection criteria, The TUC, Pregnant Then Screwed, the Young Women’s Trust, and the Fatherhood Institute want companies to include potential flexible working arrangements in every job ad. That could be flex-time, compressed hours, job-shares, or any other number of diverse options.
“Requiring employers to advertise is a really obvious push onto the employer,” says Andrew Bazeley, who is the policy, insight, and public affairs manager at the Fawcett Society. “For them, it’s the lowest-impact shift, but the most meaningful in making flexible work the default.” There’s plenty to suggest it would be straightforward to execute as well. Sixty-four percent of HR managers said it would be easy to include specific information about home or remote working in each role’s ad. Some 59 percent said the same for hours-based flexible working.
Brearley believes a refusal to recognize the appetite for change is fueling this debacle. “This government believes businesses see our demands as too much red tape and are unwilling to take what they feel is a big leap,” she explains. “But businesses understand the options on the table—they just want more guidance on how to implement them.” Instead of receiving advice from the government, they’re relying on organizations like Pregnant Then Screwed and Mother Pukka, which have seen consultancy requests from employers soar in recent months.
Since the start of 2021, 3,000 childcare providers in the UK have collapsed, and costs have risen much faster than the general inflation rate. With parents clinging to a patchwork of crippling childcare options, it’s undeniable that they have a huge amount to gain from legislative change. That said, Cheney Hamilton, CEO of consultancy firm Find Your Flex, believes BEIS failed to frame flexible work as a universal right from the start. “Of the organizations invited to give evidence, all campaign for mothers’ or parents’ rights, which is such a singular view of who would benefit,” she explains. “The language of the survey is a fudge too—it asks why flexible working is important and immediately defaults to asking the respondent to set out caring commitments and reference any disability or condition you may have. But this isn’t just about care—it’s about well-being for all employees.”
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Research conducted by Find Your Flex in 2020 found that 58 percent of its audience either aren’t parents or have no children younger than 18. Childcare is not the driver for flexible working—the reasons and spread of people requesting it are varied. Qualitative research found that many want to work flexibly to fit around their lifestyle, pets, travel, or working for multiple businesses. Using Find Your Flex’s job-seeking platform, applicants benchmark inclusive employers, as “flexible jobs can’t be tick-boxed, and other ‘inclusivity gimmicks’ can often just be pretty words,” says Hamilton.
One in seven people looking for a job with flexible working is from the LGBTQ community, one in 10 has a disability, and 48 percent are Black, Asian, or other ethnic minority. Hamilton recalls the sharp intake of breath when she laid out this data at the roundtable with members of Parliament. “They wanted the consultation to remain a parent thing, and yet there’s a whole different narrative that needs addressing,” she explains. As companies clamber over one another to announce their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, the government is closing the door on some of the policies that can make it a reality—and missing out on an estimated £55 billion ($73 billion) that could be unlocked by implementing effective flexible work.
“Businesses must consider working in a more humane way—not strapping someone to a slab of MDF under strip lighting,” says Anna Whitehouse, CEO of Mother Pukka. “At the cost of what? Including people at the table who carry responsibilities, live with disabilities, with anxiety? It’s all talent that just needs to work in a different way. Shutting out all those people for a quick water cooler chat is a devastating choice.”
There’s a jaded sense among campaigning organizations that this is the last chance to voice flexible-work ideals in the UK for up to five years. Even if the Employment Bill is brought forward to 2022, the onus will remain on businesses and employees to navigate the future of flexible working without government support. The consultation has failed to deliver the most basic of frameworks, and in doing so, has killed any hope of the UK becoming a flexible-employment utopia. Instead, flexible working will remain a reward for employee loyalty—a nice-to-have, when it is truly essential.
The decision doesn’t surprise Hamilton, because it’s inextricably linked with the fear of a new taxation system. “If the government genuinely pushed flexible working, businesses would need to move to more variable organizational cost structures, and more workers could move away from PAYE [pay-as-you-earn] taxes to being contractors,” she says. “It would shaft how they fund everything and impact the wealthy who use capital gains so effectively. It’s deeply political—the Conservative government needs us to fund all the shit they're doing, so they’re not interested in progressing how we work—they just want to keep us in our lane.”
Employees at companies with an increasingly hybrid labor force are seeing the benefits of outcome-based work culture—including, they hope, less risk of burnout. “Workers would be much better off, as they would work to an outcome, enabling them to do the same job for several different companies,” says Hamilton. And although wholesale adoption of outcome-based working runs the risk of repeating many of the problems of the gig economy, earning potential could skyrocket. “Flexible working is so much more than being able to work the hours you want; it touches on every single facet of our lives,” she says. But how to get it, if the government refuses to make concrete legislative change? “All of us must push this back on business, vote with our feet, and say how we want to work.”
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