Blog: Working towards a flexible, fairer future

We need the government to champion the cultural shift to building flexibility into all jobs from the start and not just a right to ask a ‘favour’

Christina McAnea

The Westminster government’s proposals for a day one right to request flexible working are both welcome and long overdue.

This change will remove one of the immediate barriers to flexibility required by many carers and disabled workers, amongst others.

It also changes the narrative from a sense that even being allowed to ‘ask’ is somehow a perk or reward for service rather than a normal employment provision. But it’s not enough.

Along with most other organisations we work with, our strong position is that most jobs can be worked flexibly.

Employers should think upfront about the flexible working options that are available in a role, publish these in all job adverts and give successful applicants a day one right to take it up or to suggest alternative flexible arrangements for consideration under the right-to-request banner.

This is particularly important in a post-COVID landscape where many progressive employers have recognised the benefits of offering flexibility to attract talent and retain staff. However, care needs to be taken not to force flexibility on staff as a ‘one size fits all‘ solution, or worse as a means to have an on demand, zero hours workforce.

COVID has highlighted the greater ability, and opportunity, for new forms of flexibility and has, by necessity, been a hard testbed of home and hybrid-working for many.

However, while so many people were suddenly working from home, over half of the workforce continued to work outside the home. For many of our members, because of the nature of the work they do, working from home was, is and never will be an option for them. These workers have not been able to access the flexibility available to home workers.

Positive flexible working policies help promote greater equality by providing a choice for carers, disabled employees and anyone trying to balance other important aspects of their life, such as education and training with working.

Furthermore, getting flexible working policies right significantly helps address pay inequity by helping ensure employees remain in the labour market.

Despite some shifting of traditional roles, women remain the prime carers in families and increasingly, have caring responsibilities not just for children but for parents and/or other relatives.

With over one million women in UNISON, our members are acutely aware of the impact caring has on your working life when there is a lack of flexibility.

But despite good intentions, the current system of individual requests has often been a deterrent to people asking for flexibility for fear of the request affecting them negatively.

It places flexibility as exceptional instead of commonplace. Too much rests on whether there is a supportive employer locally, rather than whether there is an overarching expectation of a supportive culture in most organisations.

There is huge room for improvement in the current system. Flexibility can be the make or break issue defining whether an employee can remain in employment. In particular, when urgent care needs arise, there is just too long to wait for an answer to a request  – childcare and other care provisions or support may become unavailable while the employee waits for a decision.

Importantly, there should be more dialogue built into the system – dialogue is by far the best way to get to mutually beneficial outcomes.

At a minimum, there should be the offer to discuss the request face to face before a decision is made. Of course, employers will need to ensure their core business can continue, especially where this involves supporting and interacting with other people, but employees should be able to get an explanation for a refusal and the opportunity to consider alternative options, if possible.

Our own members experience has shown that, for many employees, the lack of access to necessary flexibility can have a huge impact, not just on their morale and productivity, but also on their ability to remain in the workforce at all. Finding a mutually workable level of flexibility is central to addressing many equalities of access issues for employees.

This current consultation on making the right-to-request a day one right is undoubtedly a step in the right direction but we are urging the government to be bolder. We need policies that will make flexible working easier.

We need the government to champion the cultural shift to building flexibility into jobs from the start and not just the right to ask a ‘favour’.