One in three flexible working requests turned down

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Creating a culture of trust can help HR overcome the "roadblocks" faced when implementing flexible working, say experts

One in three (30%) requests for flexible working are turned down by employers, according to the TUC.

Its poll of 2,700 UK adults in full-time or part-employment found that most staff say flexible working is not available to them.

Flexi-time is unavailable to more than half (58%) of UK workers, with people in working-class jobs (defined as roles in lower-paid sectors such as retail and social care) most likely to miss out (64%), the research found. Yet flexible working was found to be important to many employees, with three in 10 (28%) saying their desire for more flexible hours is one of the main reasons they might look for a new job.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said that flexible working should be a “day-one right” instead of “bosses hav[ing] free rein” to turn down requests, as allowed by the law currently.

“It’s not right that millions are struggling to balance their work and home lives. Ministers must change the law so that people can work flexibly – regardless of what type of contract they are on,” she said. “Allowing people more flexibility in how and when they do their work makes them happier and more productive.”

The findings coincide with the TUC's announcement that it is joining the Flex for All campaign to change the law so that flexible working is open to all workers from day one in their jobs. The alliance of groups, including the Fawcett Society and the Young Women’s Trust, is also calling for employers to advertise all jobs as flexible.

Rebekah Wallis, director of people and corporate responsibility at Ricoh, said that while HR has a “significant role” in embedding flexible working, the function can often come up against “roadblocks”.

“Notably there can be some misunderstanding when it comes to what employees are entitled to – the reference to a formal policy, for example, can cause confusion and have the opposite effect to enabling more flexible working. In addition, both managers and employers often don’t understand what flexible working is and the benefits it brings, such as higher engagement levels and productivity,” she told HR magazine.

Wallis said that HR must focus on creating a culture of trust. “To overcome challenges faced when implementing a flexible working policy, it is important that HR works on the basis of trusting everyone, dealing separately with the extremely small percentage – if any – who breach that trust," she said.

"The vast majority of employees would like to have flexibility in the way they work, and the desire and benefits are not specific to any particular groups or segments of the workforce. Therefore, it requires an open mindset to working out how flexible working will work. HR needs to approach this with a view to working out how flexible working can be implemented, rather than putting up barriers or reasons why it can’t work.

Changing the culture around flexible working needs senior buy-in, Wallis added. “As with all change, flexible working needs to be led from the top. Ultimately if your CEO and executive team embraces flexibility everyone will. While the move to flexible working requires a move to output-based leadership, it is crucial nonetheless that managers receive the right support and training to lead in this way,” she said.

“Managers must be given the skills, trust and confidence to manage their teams in a flexible way, with as few rules as possible for how they do this.”

Jane van Zyl, chief executive of Working Families, said she wasn’t surprised by the research. “We know from our legal advice service for parents and carers that it’s all too easy for reluctant employers to turn down a flexible working request by citing ‘business reasons’,” she told HR magazine.

“But the underlying problem isn’t HR managers – it’s a persistently prohibitive workplace culture that places a higher value on full-time work. Our own research shows that despite the right to request being a legal entitlement, many working parents report that flexible working is not ‘allowed’ in their workplace.”

Van Zyl added that employers need to do more to make flexible working the norm in UK workplaces. “Rather than making flexible working an individual day-one right – which at best risks continuing to limit working flexibly to certain employees, very often mothers, and at worst risks the exclusion of parents and carers from employers’ candidate pools – Working Families is calling for the onus to be put on employers,” she said.

“Requiring employers to think through why vacancies can’t be done part time and flexibly and to be transparent about part-time and flexible options when advertising roles will shift their organisational approach. This would make them more likely to accept flexible working requests in the first place and, more importantly, help make part-time and flexible working the ‘norm’ in individual workplaces and across the UK labour market. This is what's needed to ensure a level playing field around progression and promotion for the UK’s working parents and carers."

Further reading

Bill introduced to make all jobs flexible by default

Fathers denied flexible working

De Bois: Employers must educate legislators on flexible working

Flexible working more important than role prestige and pay

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