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Government is missing the point – and opportunity – with flexible working consultation

By October 20, 2021Management Today, Read
Management Today Magazine

The Government is hailing its proposal to make flexible working a ‘day-one’ right for employees as the way to make flexible working ‘the default’. But in reality, its plans fall short of what’s needed for meaningful change. Sad news for employees. But employers too will miss out.

It’s true a day-one right, as per the Government’s consultation, will help some new employees. Those few who experience life changes during their first 26 weeks in post, who become carers, fall pregnant, have accidents, or get long Covid.

For people like these, the new proposal doesn’t make flex the default. But it does offer the chance to request it sooner.

But default flex is completely different.

Default flex means that every role should have appropriate flexibility (if any) designed in, in line with operational needs. This flexibility should be visible and communicated to external and internal candidates.

But default flex is not what is being consulted on. And the Government explicitly rules out requiring employers to assess for and advertise flex.

The consultation says making flexible working the default will help secure “employee productivity gains and build better relationships with the workforce, enabling businesses to thrive into the longer-term”.

So far, so good. It also says: “Working arrangements are best decided through a constructive, open-minded discussion between employer and employee.”

I don’t think anyone would disagree with that. But then comes the killer blow: “That conversation needs to start somewhere – and it seems wholly appropriate that the starting point should be an employee request.”

Not default flex, already designed in, to be taken up if required. Just a minor change to the date by when someone can request flexible working under the law. And an expressed hope that employers will be nudged to change practice and culture by anxiety that a new hire might make a statutory request for flexible working.

This misses the point, and the opportunity.

To tackle barriers to work; women’s participation in and progression at work, and the gender pay gap; to use flexible working as the helpful tool it is for driving engagement and performance, needs strategic, systemic change. Because these problems are systemic.

Yet this proposal is still about accommodating the individual who asks for something different.

It’s not only limited in its usefulness for individuals, but misses the chance to really help employers reset post pandemic.

Today there is huge desire for flex. Ninety per cent of those currently employed are either already working flexibly or would like to.

Among them are an estimated 1.5 million people who are stuck in their current role, because they can’t afford to lose the flex they already have.

While 13 million people who’ve been working from home during the pandemic say they want to retain some elements of flexibility as their organisations return on site.

To attract and retain talent through the post pandemic reset, businesses should review each vacancy for its flex potential. Then include this information in the job description, the advertisement, the recruitment pack. Candidates won’t waste time applying for a full-time job in the hope it might turn out to be flexible; recruiters won’t waste time on candidates who may have unrealistic or impossible expectations.

In a jobseekers’ market, where talented people put flexibility above salary, its availability is fast becoming not so much a differentiator as a requirement. By including what flexibility is possible at the point of advertisement, businesses can attract a wider pool of talent; and are future proofed against any request for changed working patterns now or in future because the flex that is possible in each role is already defined.

As we emerge from the pandemic, and many employers struggle with record vacancies, our business model is crying out for default flex. What a pity then, that the Government’s proposals won’t help.

First published on 19th October 2021 in Management Today magazine