How more widespread flexible working could improve equality

The pandemic has altered perceptions of flexible working for the better. As we move forward, it could be the key to unlocking true gender equality in the workplace.

HR Zone have published an article written by SA Law's employment partner, Beth Leng, on how widespread flexible working could improve equality in the workplace.

As of April this year, 26 of the UK’s largest insurance and long-term savings companies had signed up to ABI’s UK flexible working campaign, a move that was welcomed by industry leaders and equality groups alike. ABI’s Making Flexible Work Charter requires signatories to commit to:

  1. Making the majority of newly advertised jobs open to flexible working.
  2. Publishing their flexible working policies to both candidates and employees.
  3. Putting policies and guidance in place for those wanting to work flexibly.

Moving beyond the right to request

The right to request flexible working has been on the statute books for almost 20 years. Originally it only applied to parents and carers but in 2014 it was extended to all employees with at least 26 weeks’ continuous service, regardless of their parental or caring responsibilities.

Part of the challenge is that the legislation has only ever given employees the right to request flexible working. Such requests must be considered reasonably and within a reasonable time period. There are broad and wide-ranging grounds for employers to refuse such requests, however, under eight permitted grounds. This has led many to label the legislation ‘toothless’, leaving those whose requests are rejected with tenuous claims for indirect sex discrimination.

Help is at hand, however: the government’s flexible working taskforce has recommended that flexible working should be the new default position for all workers. The law is only part of the problem – the campaign for hearts and minds has a long way to go, even after the pandemic.

Benefit or risk?

For employees on the ground, those who have embraced the existing opportunities provided by their employers to work flexibly have regularly found themselves at the top of redundancy/at risk lists, subject to questionable PIPs or side lined for further advancement, precisely because of those working arrangements. Managers under pressure have struggled to juggle client demands with teams of employees working reduced hours, in job shares or under other flexible arrangements. Time and time again, the feedback is ‘it just doesn’t work for a business like ours’.

Moreover, the point at which employees request flexible working is commonly used by employers as a platform to discuss exits and/or settlement agreements – for example, when a flexible working request is made by an employee returning from maternity or shared parental leave. Employers are scared to commit to arrangements that may not work and may be difficult to unravel at a later date.

Ultimately, those who work flexibly report feeling that they have far less job security than others who want to/are able to commit to full time office-based working.

Making it work

There is a lot employers can do now to support their staff and benefit their organisations beyond simply offering flexible working.

  • Lead from the top
  • Tracking careers
  • Monitoring
  • Training
  • Honesty

Read Beth's full article on HR Zone here.


If you would like more information or advice relating to this article or an Employment law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Beth Leng on 01727 798046.

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