Is flexible working as flexible as it seems?

Blog by Laura Walker | Mar 2021

Skilled Volunteer and founder of Fresh Solutions HR, Laura Walker, has almost 20 years of Human Resources experience across a variety of sectors. In this blog she shares expert advice for anyone looking to submit a Flexible Working request and a list of useful resources to find out more.

Flexible working has been a topic of discussion for well over 20 years in the workplace and successive governments in the UK have tried to ‘define’ the term ‘flexible working’ and what it means for workers, but the truth is that it is still challenging to define and there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. I was recently asked to write for Link UP London, having become involved with their work at the beginning of the pandemic, supporting small organisations to get some HR support and I have been proud to be a part of their Relaunch women campaign; supporting skilled female professions back into the workplace.

During the month of March, I had decided I was going to talk about all things flexible in the workplace to celebrate International Women’s Day and as part of a number of well-known campaigns. So imagine my delight when the Minister for Women and Equalities, Liz Truss, stated that it is ‘beneficial to both employers and employees to normalise flexible working’. Wow! What an endorsement this is for flexible working. It’s a huge step in the right direction for the government, businesses and commentators to recognise how the last 12 months really have shaped the way that we will be working in the future. Don’t get me wrong, there is an extraordinarily long way to go for flexible working to be seen as an intrinsic day to day part of our working culture and for it to be seen and treated as completely equal, but it is most definitely a great step forward.

Flexible working is a huge subject and it’s impossible to cover every element of it here, but I wanted to specifically cover some of the realities behind requesting flexible working in the workplace and whether it really turns out to be as flexible as it seems. So, let’s look at some of the myths out there:

‘My employer will never agree to flexible working-no one has ever done it.’

If you have this mindset going in to making a request for flexible working with this approach, it’s never going to work. The key thing when making a request is being as open and honest as you can be and highlighting to the employer just how beneficial this will be both for you and them. Don’t be tempted to think that just because you’ve never heard of anyone working flexibly or they really have never done it before that it will get turned down, perhaps they’ve never been asked or perhaps it’s very informally agreed. Get your request in and support each other through the process.

‘Part time hours will never be approved, I will just ask for them to be condensed into less days.’

A common mistake by employees considering a request is that they believe that their employer will never agree to less hours overall, so instead they put in a request to work condensed hours i.e., the same 5 days a week but in 4 days. In some circumstances, this could be exactly what you want to have that 1 day off work, but in reality, you are going to work your entire full-time role but in 4 days. This means longer hours, potentially more pressure to succeed, the organisation itself may think that this is beneficial, but is it really? Think long and hard about what you ‘want’ when making a request. If it’s about less hours, if it’s about flexibility, be clear in your request. There are a variety of ways to make flexible working work for you and your employer.

‘We already work flexibly.’

This is something I hear employers say, a lot! When I drill down into what that really means, I often hear things like ‘we allow people to work from home whenever they need to’, ‘we all have laptops and mobile phones’, ‘It’s always ok to leave work if you have a childcare situation’ and so on and so on. The reality is that often employers genuinely believe that by being very flexible and discretionary, this is really appealing to the employee. Perhaps they don’t track these types of absences or perhaps they really are the best kind of employer that doesn’t worry at all about where you are and when you are there, so long as you are doing your role, but it’s probable more stressful for employees having no guidelines and for others doing as they please. Having a clear structure of who does what and when, really helps and keeping communication continuous also helps too.

‘Flexible working is too expensive, too complicated and we don’t think we need it, people will always want to work for us.’

My experience very sadly tells me that this statement can often be heard around the offices of employers and for employees who have convinced themselves that flexible working just won’t be approved. It is very short-sighted, very inaccurate and really very unhelpful for business culture and mental wellbeing. Employers who embrace flexible working actually report that productivity increases, that when they advertise for a role to be flexible that applications can increase by up to 35% and that their organisations are happier places to work. What we need is for more employers to come forward and say ‘yes’ we work flexibly and ‘yes’ it really does work. We also need just as many small businesses to come out and say this as we do larger corporates, because it is often the smaller organisations that find flexibility much harder because they have less employees and less bandwidth for roles undertaken. It is challenging, but there are ways to do it and it’s about getting creative and taking that leap forward.

There are so many myths around flexible working, and this was just a few of them, but it is the role of HR professionals like me, campaigners, governments, and business leaders to lead the discussion and push the agenda forward that flexibility is OK, it does work. Now, I cannot of course ignore the fact that for the last 12 months here in the UK we have been part of a global pandemic and that we have been ‘working at home’. We know that 1 in 5 workers has been completely home based for the last year and that is staggering. The pandemic has seismically changed our working worlds forever, that’s a fact and if you hadn’t already read or heard that, well you read it here first. Our working lives and our home lives and our children’s school lives collided and whilst it was an impossible situation and we all tried our best to balance and juggle the workload, it also created a big bang style outcome, because companies realised that we really could work at home and we did so in impossible scenarios with the entire household creeping around the office door or spread across the dining room table. Companies embraced the change because they had no choice and they made it work, they supported their employees, they went virtual, they changed their strategy and the tectonic plates started to shift.

With that shift, there were huge cracks and there still are. Companies that just couldn’t cope with the change or those that simply couldn’t run or function at all. I really have felt for some of those companies that just could not move forward because of restrictions, it has changed the landscape forever. These are not included here, this is about companies that just couldn’t change, they found it too hard, or they just decided they didn’t want to. You will have a long journey ahead, but I hope you make it, I really do. If you are an employer reading this and you really need some support, please do get in touch and I would be happy to put you in touch with agencies that can help you move forward.

For anyone out there considering a flexible request today, my advice is, do it. Make your case, be open, be honest and stand up for your voice to be heard. You are not letting anyone down; you are making a choice and you are asking your employer to support that choice. Whether it’s creating balance for your family life, asking to arrive a little later, go home a little earlier to collect children, to be there at the school gate once a week, to look after a relative that needs care and support, do not be afraid. I am behind you; we are all behind you. There are some great sources to get advice and I would highly encourage you to do so, because there are individuals and organisations that really can help you. Here are just a few of my personal recommendations:

Pregnant then Screwed – Joeli Brearley is a trailblazer, and her organisation is really helping change the agenda. There is an employee helpline, totally free, to call and ask about how to put together a request, get advice and support at any stage in the process and anything else that you need support with at work.

Flex Appeal – Anna Whitehouse (Mother Pukka) – Anna is another trailblazer in the field of Flexible Working, and she has so much information on her website and social media spaces.

Flexibility Matters – Helping candidates to apply for flexible roles and helping employers to see the benefits in the flexible recruitment process.

Working Families – The work life balance charity who are on a mission to break down the barriers that working families face.

Black Women Working (BWW) UK – A platform for black women to discuss experiences, frustrations, and top tips. A fantastic resource for working parents.

Working Mums – Another place to get great information, advice, and support. They have lots of contributors and easy to understand tips for flexible working and beyond.

The Job Share Pair – On a mission to make job sharing accessible for all.

Laura Walker

Blog contributor is a HR Consultant and founder at @FreshsolutionsHR, an independent HR Consultancy based in West Sussex. She delivers tailor-made, practical solutions for businesses. Laura works with companies every day to encourage them to see the wider benefits of flexible working for their organisations.   Laura fully supports the rights of working parents to be able to work flexibly and spends a lot of her free time supporting campaigns such as 'Pregnant then Screwed' and helping working mothers to get the flexibility they are looking for.

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