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A new approach to flexible working is needed to prevent widening inequality

ReWAGE’s new report, says that remote working is here to stay, but even for those able to work remotely there are many unresolved issues that need to be addressed. More importantly, opportunities for flexible working need to be expanded for the majority of the workforce who cannot work remotely if we are to avoid widening inequality. The report is supported by a short policy brief. The paper was commissioned and funded by Deloitte.

The paper ‘The future of flexible working sets out the current and potential problems with flexible working, as well as considering the benefits that it can bring, suggesting that the right approach could contribute to a more sustainable, productive and inclusive society. Flexible working could contribute to:

  • developing sustainable forms of employment in light of major transitions in the economy and employment related to transformations such as AI and net zero;
  • progressing towards a more gender equal society that is also compatible with more equal parenting and quality childcare;
  • enabling a more inclusive approach to employment that attracts into or retains in employment more mothers, carers, disabled people or older people- thereby helping both employers by reducing turnover and labour shortages -and also the government by enabling more people to be in work;
  • improving well-being, including through better physical and mental health by reducing negative health and well-being impacts of work and working time;
  • supporting the development of a productive and inclusive economy.

However, for flexible working to really work for employers and employees, there are key issues that need to be addressed. Report co-author, Professor Jill Rubery (University of Manchester), explains:

“The pandemic accelerated the adoption of flexible working – in particular remote working – with employers finding that many of the objections or concerns they had about remote working did not hold true. It looks like flexible working is here to stay, and people who have been able to work flexibly either from home or other locations, have reported improvements in satisfaction and well-being.

However, flexibility isn’t just about remote working – the majority of work cannot be done remotely and flexible working for in-person workers has often been employer-driven and not designed to meet employee needs. If flexible working is not implemented in the right way, there is a high risk of increasing inequalities in work and working time, particularly by social class, between those able to work off-site and those in jobs requiring in-person work.”

In terms of mitigating the negative effects of employer-driven flexibility, the UK is currently an outlier in Europe. Since Brexit, the EU has brought in several regulations on working time that the UK is excluded from – for example the upgrading of contracted hours, payments for on call work and preparations for implementing the ‘right to disconnect’. However, some progress is being made. A new act which gives workers the right to request flexible working from day one of employment and allows workers to make a request twice in a year and to get a quicker response will become law next year. In addition, a bill has been introduced into parliament which, if passed, will give employees the right to request more predictable hours (but only after 6 months employment). These are steps in the right direction, but it must be remembered that these are still only rights to request.

Many employers will be under pressure to implement flexible working, but progress may be slow as changes are reliant on voluntary action due to low unionisation and low collective bargaining. Whatever changes are implemented, a more inclusive approach needs to be taken to improve the working lives of all, including those who cannot work in hybrid / flexible ways.

The report concludes that for an inclusive approach to flexible working to be successful, it has to address four core issues:

  • predictability – to enable workers to plan when, where and for how long they work, thereby reducing stress;
  • avoidance of hours of work which are too short or too variable unless specifically requested by employees;
  • avoidance of working time which is either too long or never ending – as a counter to the ‘always on’ culture and as a means of maintaining work-life balance;
  • facilitating sustainable and respectful employment – by enabling adjustments to be made over the life course according to changing personal circumstances and by ensuring the right to private life and non-invasive surveillance.

Co-author Professor Rubery concluded:

“For employers the growth of part time and flexible working in the UK can lead to benefits such as more committed staff, better recruitment and retention and less absenteeism and the opportunity to cover peak times without incurring overtime costs. For employees benefits can include adjustments to life commitments, reduced commuting time and access to more leisure time – either consolidated or per day.

“While there may be obstacles to moving towards a new approach to flexible working it is worth remembering that the experiments with remote working during the pandemic have opened opportunities to challenge views that the way things are currently done is the way things must continue to be done. The potential attitudinal barriers and concerns among both employers and workers are, however, only likely to be overcome through wider support for new approaches to employment and to promoting inclusion and equality.”

This ReWAGE publication was co-authored for ReWAGE by Professor Jill Rubery (University of Manchester), Professor Alan Felstead (Cardiff University), Helen Blakely (Cardiff University) and Emily Erickson (University of Warwick).

Mon 04 Sep 2023, 10:00