28 April 2023

It is time to grasp the opportunities of flexible working

By Sally Hogg

Since working from home went mainstream during the pandemic, there have been a slew of articles either extolling the virtues of ‘WFH’ or lamenting its apparent baleful effects.

An example of the latter was a ConservativeHome article earlier this week addressing the ‘scourge of working from home’.

Businessman and office industry investor Andrew Barclay’s piece takes issue with the Government’s commitment to give employees the right to request flexible working from their first day at work, which he believes will threaten the UK’s tech start-up industry. There are, however, some significant flaws with this argument.

First, the right to request flexible working does not give employees the right to work from home. It doesn’t guarantee any form of flexibility. The right to request flexible working simply enables a discussion between employer and employee about working hours and location. Employers are able to reject requests for flexible work for one of eight reasons, which include the impact on performance and quality of customer services. Indeed, a 2021 survey of 13,000 working mothers found that 50% had their flexible working requests rejected or only accepted in part.

And, as the article itself argues, ‘the most appropriate working policies are best decided by business itself‘. If that’s the case, then surely it’s not for the Government to proactively try to reduce home working. Some businesses will decide that a hybrid or home working policy is the best for them, perhaps because they want to recruit the best talent, irrespective of location, or to save or share the overheads of an office.

It’s worth reiterating: employers are not being forced to enable flexible working. They are simply being asked to explore if they can change and adapt – one might even call this encouraging innovation.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that flexible working offers a solution to our chronic labour and skills shortages. Flexibility enables businesses to attract and retain employees from a wider talent pool – not just those who can be in the office 9-5, five days a week.

This particularly matters when it comes to the UK’s female inactivity rate, which is higher than that of the best-performing economies in the OECD. Flexibility offers a solution: Deloitte’s 2022 Women at Work report found that women are seeking more flexible working, while the TUC’s 2021 Survey of working mothers found that 99% would be more likely to apply for a job if it offered flexible working in the advert. Given that the tech industry is hiring more than any other area of the UK labour market last year, it surely needs to be open to these kind of solutions.

New start-ups competing for the best talent in a competitive industry should think seriously about all aspects of their offer to employees. Those who enforce inflexible policies may find that they lose talent to more flexible competitors who are open to different ways of working. Flexibility can be low-cost; Recruiting and onboarding key staff are not.

Considering flexible working at the point of recruitment also offers a chance to streamline recruitment and HR processes. Under current legislation the right to request only kicks in at 26 weeks, at which point ways of working are established, job design is fixed and opportunities to recruit from a wider pool who might have applied for flexible role have been missed. Barclay argues that the right to request from day one would mean the founders of tech start-ups ‘would spend their crucial first days as de facto HR managers focused on negotiating individual flexible working contacts’. But, presumably, founders already negotiate salary and incentives with potential employees in order to secure the best talent. Why not discuss working location and hours at the same time?

Nor does being in the office 9-5 (or the longer hours that Barclay describes), guarantee productivity. Our long-term national productivity problem started well before the right to request flexible working was even being discussed.

Of course, full-time home working does not always work well. I’ve tried managing new graduates working full-time in their bedrooms, and it isn’t effective. Culture, communication, learning, relationships all rely heavily on personal connections made when we spend time together. But they don’t require everyone to be in the same place all their working hours. There’s plenty of room for inefficiency in an office environment too: just think of the characters who spend time chatting over the kettle or taking long lunch breaks. Improving productivity requires employees to be motivated and skilled, and to be well-managed. Employers should focus on getting this right, not an inflexible culture of working fixed hours in fixed places.

Finally, we should be wary of looking at this debate as though the needs of business are the only thing that matters. Of course, they do matter, but government is also about finding ways for our society and communities to thrive. The right to request flexible working has wider environmental and social benefits which sustainably-minded businesses could support.

For example, the lack of flexibility in the labour market is a major barrier to better work for those who cannot be in a workplace during traditional hours due to caring responsibilities or health issues, trapping many in poverty and welfare dependency. Working flexible hours, or working at home, enables parents to spend more hours with their children, with clear benefits for families. If parents work closer to the school gates on some days, it can reduce spend on childcare and commuting – very welcome in the current cost of living crisis. And, if everyone doesn’t have to drive to same place at the same time, there are benefits for our infrastructure and climate. 

The pandemic gave us an opportunity to reassess how we work. While sticking to the lockdown culture of remote working is not a sustainable and rewarding solution, neither is retreating back to old-fashioned ways of working. It is time to reimagine a better solution that meets the needs of families, communities, businesses and our planet. That should be an exciting prospect for any government to consider.

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Sally Hogg is a leading expert on children and families policy.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.