A new report to coincide with National Parents Week ‘Family Friendly or Failing Families?’ from national charity Family Lives finds that flexible working is still extremely difficult to obtain across both the public and private sector. As the Government is about to launch new flexible working proposals under the bold aspiration of the “Modern Workplaces agenda” the report outlines how many families struggle with the challenge of reconciling work and family life and for some parents it even means making tough choices about whether to leave work altogether.

The report finds that while many businesses claim to be both family-friendly and supportive of flexible working, there is a clear disparity between aims and implementation. Currently the UK workplace culture and management remains fixed on a 9 am-5pm or longer hours model and employers continue to consider flexible working cases on an ad hoc basis rather than implementing a pro-active strategic approach to adapting working practices.

Family Lives’ ‘Family Friendly or Failing Families?’ report makes a series of recommendations to policy makers which include:

  • Flexible working needs to become normalised in workplace. The government must progress the key proposal in the Modern Workplaces agenda to extend the right to request to all employees. Case studies identified in Family Lives report highlight that flexible working continues to be viewed as a parental perk and whilst this perception remains, parents will continue to be discriminated against in the workplace and not be able to reconcile home and work life in a way that meets their needs.
  • The government should strengthen and more clearly codify the statutory right to request with a view to making the process more adaptable to family needs. Family Lives encourages the government to allow employees to make a second flexible working request within a year and promote the use of flexible working trial periods. For a number of our case study examples, confusion remains over the use of informal trials of flexible working, which directs employers to refuse a request in order to comply with statutory time periods. Using more flexible working trials will allow businesses and employees time to adapt to a new working framework.
  • The government should look to support flexible working through proposals in the Modern Workplaces agenda to increase flexibility in taking maternity, paternity and parental leaves. Allowing some element of a phased return to work can ease the transition between full time leave and returning to work. For some employees and employers this period could serve as an informal trial of flexible working.
  • Workplaces should explore new information technologies which promote mobile and remote working, many of which can be implemented at low or no additional cost.

Claire Walker, Working Mum and Director of Policy, Family Lives says:

“While flexible working has become near universal in UK workplaces – with over 95% if workplaces purporting to offer at least one flexible working practice – many workplaces are still unable to see the benefits and cost savings to them of this approach and parents are either being refused reasonable requests to change working patterns or are too afraid to ask. Because of rising living and childcare costs, many parents, especially women, are forced to leave the workplace taking vital skills and experience with them. With the Government’s Modern Workplaces agenda imminent and more businesses struggling with overhead costs, now is the time for workplaces to consider change that benefits everyone. Family Lives would be delighted to help families struggling with this issue through our range of services. We would also love to support any workplace wanting to fully embrace all the benefits of flexible working for all.”

Family Lives’ report asserts there is a clear business case for having family friendly workplaces. Flexible working should be seen as an integral strategy to meeting the demands of a globalised economy and doing business internationally.

Mitra Janes, Diversity and Inclusion Manager, Ford of Britain, who contributed to the report says:

“There are significant business benefits of flexible working, particularly in a global company like Ford Motor Company whereby employees may be working across different time zones in different continents. Additionally, technological advancements such as the ability to access work emails on smart phones, have supported employees being able to work effectively from any location and at any time with minimal additional cost to the business. A range of flexible working options (part time working, working from home, changes to start/finish times, job sharing) have enabled us to provide meaningful roles for employees wishing to balance careers with home commitments. Our experiences has shown that this is of particular importance to working parents and has also enhanced our ability to retain employees following periods of maternity leave”

HR Advisors commenting in the report highlight the challenges of trying to create flexible working environments in UK companies;

“The culture here is quite closed to flexible working – it is really is only seen for people returning from maternity leave and it is not seen as wider than that… It is a very male orientated company and there are still an awful lot of old fashioned views. While we are trying to move away from that – as much as you brand yourself as open to diversity and all that good stuff you can’t actually change the perceptions and judgments of people” Michelle, HR Advisor, Company X

“I know we have a policy, but we simply don’t promote it. We think that it would be an issue on site.” Lauren, Recruitment Manager, Company Y.

Ditto, parents commenting in the report highlight their frustrations and anxieties of applying for flexible working below:

“In my initial request I put down solutions as to how it could be managed and I did suggest a part-time job share. When I had my consultation with HR they seemed positive, yet when I got back a letter they said that it wasn’t cost effective to do that and that they needed to cover someone from 9 o’clock to 5:30 pm” Ellen, Law Administrator.

“I received a letter to say my request had been rejected. I appealed and agreed to a compromise to work three days part time and three days six hours. I think it is more confusing for customers to say I work certain hours across the week. For my team, they will have to pick up extra work across the week. Chatting to another colleague and asking her how she feels – which I believe should have happened – she said that it would have been much better to go with my original proposal rather than jumbled up hours. Both of us who do the job believe it will cause them more work having a couple of hours off, rather than the whole day” Caroline, Team Leader

Family Lives believes that flexible working should be seen a dynamic policy for all employees (for men, women, old and young) which supports staff to combine work, care and family life in the broadest sense. Family Friendly policies facilitate choices about work and care, ensuring that families have adequate time and material resources, enhancing child development, promoting diversity, work wellbeing and creating gender equality in employment opportunities. In this way, family friendly policies should be viewed as integral to a progressive workplace culture that supports high quality, highly productive working that benefits all of society.

Key Tips for implementing Flexible Working

The practical objections often raised by managers are not insurmountable – it just calls for a bit of thought, careful planning, clear communication and appropriate training for everyone involved.

  • Investing in clear forward planning can pay dividends later when a flexible working request arrives. Flexible working training for all line managers should look at the process of the statutory working request and analyse the sequence of events, from communication to implementation, performance management and review. Job performance should take into account a line manager’s ability to manage workers remotely.
  • Investing in new technology. Technology is the enabler of remote and flexible working, allowing employees to maintain personal relationships. Mobile devices, remote network access and/or cloud services, desktop visualisation, video conferencing, and social media can allow colleagues to work together despite being physically separated.
  • Reassess work roles. Take an open, objective look at job design in terms of the roles’ real objectives and deliverables and the critical factors affecting the job. For example are there things that need doing every day? Is the role customer facing? Is it a task or project-based? Does it need to be carried out in the office? Job designs should be periodically reassessed to assess their compatibility with a flexible working model.
  • Communication with the broader team – team members may have a perspective on helping make a flexible working option work (i.e. another worker may prefer to cover later/earlier hours). Flexible working requests should be seen in context of a broader team and the potential to work together in ways that make sense for each of the team.