Flexible working - friend or foe?

Posted Tuesday 8th October 2019

For many employers in the City of London, implementing flexible working is a little like eating kale: you know deep down that it’s really good for you, but your mindset is struggling to accept it.

A survey published last month by professional network Cityparents reveals that flexible working – be it job sharing, working part-time, working from home, compressed hours or annualised hours – remains little more than a disingenuous tick-box exercise in many City based organisations with a strong culture of presenteeism proving hard to shift.

Of the 683 professionals surveyed, based in London’s City and Canary Wharf, 38% did not believe that flexible working was ‘genuinely encouraged’. Reasons cited include: untrusting employers, unsupportive workplace culture, lack of visible role models, low numbers of men working flexibly and fears over the potential impact on career progression.

Productivity is key

One of the biggest barriers to cultural change is the entrenched view that presenteeism (physical presence at your desk during prescribed hours) equals greater productivity, but evidence of this is mixed at best.

Some 89% of survey respondents felt just as productive when working from home compared to working in the office, while 92% of respondents said they would value having flexible performance targets. As one writes, “We still track presence as a proxy for effort”.

Closely linked to productivity is career progression, and worryingly, over half of respondents said that their employer excludes flexible workers in promotion or development opportunities.

Playing catch-up

Other key findings included the importance of effective technology systems and good digital habits for successful flexible working, while interesting work (64%) and a good work/life balance (59%) are the top reasons for staying with an employer.

In addition, employers should recognise and support the different life-stages experienced by their employees (i.e., starting a family, caring for parents, returning after a career break) and provide flexible working options to match.

Probably least surprisingly, the City ‘norm’ of high stress and long hours contradicts efforts to safeguard and improve employees’ mental health. The City’s long-hours culture is unsustainable against a global shift in attitudes towards work/life balance. Put bluntly, the City needs to play catch up.

Flexi for all

Although the survey focused on working parents (87% of respondents had children), flexible working is by no means the sole domain of those needing childcare.

Since 2014, any employee who has worked for their employer for 26 continuous weeks has a statutory right to ask to work flexibly.

Employers are under no statutory obligation to grant such a request if it cannot be accommodated by the business (based on one of several prescribed grounds).

However, both sides of our political spectrum are championing pro-employee change (a General Election is approaching after all), with the Conservatives seeking to make flexible working the default position for all employees rather than needing to request it, and Labour announcing its proposed four-day working week.

Think big, think small

Of course, flexible working suits some sectors more than others, and larger organisations find it easier to implement and manage than smaller companies. Big-Four auditor PwC introduced a flexible Talent Network last year, to attract skilled workers who don’t want to work nine-to-five.

But according to the Smarter Working Institute, which promotes improved working practices, SMEs can be among the greatest beneficiaries of flexible working, enabling both cost-cutting, recruitment and helping with retention of talent.

Indeed, with good planning and a genuine cultural change of mindset, flexible working could be more like eating chocolate, whilst reaping all the benefits of eating kale.

This article is for reference purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Specific legal advice about your specific circumstances should always be sought separately before taking or deciding not to take any action.

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