As it stands, the average commute to work in the UK is 58 minutes. With a total commute time of 116 minutes a day, plus 8 hours at work (including lunch), we’re spending somewhere around 9 hours, 56 minutes per day away from home. When you consider the huge numbers of employees who have child, parent or pet care responsibilities, or those with disabilities, this amount of time is almost impossible to adhere to every day. Even for those without caring responsibilities, it’s a long time to be out of the house. This is one of the many arguments made by Anna Whitehouse – also known by her online moniker, Mother Pukka.
The rigidity of workplace hours was the kick-starter for Flex Appeal – a campaign for workplace flexibility which Whitehouse began online back in 2015. Under the current ruling, employees can apply for flexible working once they’ve reached 26 weeks of continuous work for the same employer, but the decision is completely at the employer’s discretion. Flex Appeal turned up a notch in 2016 when Whitehouse asked to move her working day by 15 minutes so that she could pick her daughter up on time. When her employer refused to budge by a quarter of an hour for fear the ‘floodgates would open’, they in fact lost a whole person, as she quit her job there and then. UK employees work an average of 38 days per year in unpaid overtime, yet when it comes to workplace flexibility, many employees still find themselves on a one-way street where their employer’s need is always put before theirs, however small or reasonable the request.
Two simple aims
Flex Appeal has two goals: Encourage people who may benefit from flexible working to feel they can make the request; and encourage employers to see the benefits of flexible working, and consider saying yes. 80% of jobs in the UK are desk-based, the majority of which can be done from anywhere, any time. The argument from Flex Appeal is – so long as the job is done, and done on time, what does it matter when or where it gets done?
Flexible working bill
This campaign is now becoming so strong that it’s reached Parliament. Helen Whately – Conservative MP for Faversham and Mid Kent, and Minister for Arts, Heritage and Tourism – introduced a Flexible Working Bill in July 2019. The bill would require employers to offer flexible working in employment contracts. While Flex Appeal focuses on flexibility for all, Whately focuses on working mothers as her leading argument. She says, “the 40-hour, five-day working week made sense in an era of single-earner households and stay-at-home mums, but it no longer reflects the reality of how many modern families want to live their lives.
“Too many women are reluctantly dropping out of work or going part-time after having children because their employers won’t allow them flexibility.
“This entrenches the assumption that men are the breadwinners and women are the homemakers.”
Flexibility for everyone
While it’s women’s careers that are disproportionately affected by having children – exacerbated by the fact that 80% of single-parent homes are headed by single mothers – flexible working isn’t just meant to support working mothers. The traditional system assumes that men will be working all day, every day (particularly difficult for single fathers), meaning they don’t spend as much time with their families as they would like. We’ve heard of countless anecdotal examples of men needing a little flexibility to cover things like childcare, only to be asked why their wife isn’t doing it. It’s this very mindset that is damaging working life and prospects for all genders.
What will be the impact on employers? Battery hens could have the answer
As a way of illustrating the effects of inflexible working, Anna Whitehouse and Matt Farquharson – also of Mother Pukka – have drawn parallels between the working world and the lives of chickens. Their comparisons showed the difference in ‘working conditions’ and health between free-range and battery hens, and the subsequent output of each; namely, free-range chickens are healthier and produce more nutritious eggs than battery hens.
Now, while this is an extreme analogy, it’s not ridiculous to see the wellbeing and productivity benefits of having some freedom around work. Both Anna Whitehouse and Helen Whately have outlined the tangible benefits to employers who offer flexible work:
A decrease in productivity is a concern for employers, as many see ‘flexible working’ and think ‘working less’, but being a truly flexible employer will allow more people to stay in work. Giving parents and carers room to juggle work and responsibility will keep people working, rather than force them to choose one or the other. Even if it does mean working less, there’s plenty of evidence showing that the 40-hour week isn’t the best model when it comes to outputs. Microsoft are currently trialling a four-day week, and Pursuit Marketing in Glasgow switched to a four-day week three years ago, without cutting pay. Since then, productivity has increased by about 30%, sickness leave is at an all-time low and the company no longer needs to pay professional recruiters to hire staff, as so many people want to work for them.
Reduced gender pay gap
Historically, it’s generally been women who have taken the career ‘hit’ when having a family. There is still a lot of work to do to get women up to the same pay level and seniority as men, but the first step will be to not punish women for having a child, i.e. don’t force people to make the choice between parenthood and work by being inflexible.
Loyal and diverse workforce
Employers who are flexible garner stronger advocacy from their employees. The workforce can diversify if more people with a variety of different home lives can stay in work. Plus, the improvements to employee mental, physical and financial health will pay dividends in terms of their advocacy and their outputs.
How will I know what people are doing?
Exactly the same way you know now. By looking at their outputs. Judge people on what they’re doing, not where they’re sitting.
The Government is currently consulting on proposals to better support working parents, including balancing the gender division of parental leave, and ensuring employers advertise job flexibility at the outset when recruiting. This consultation is due to close on 29th November, so we will soon see whether fully flexible working is going to become more of a reality. Even if the outcome is not positive, the government’s movements so far have encouraged more serious conversations around flexible working. Employers are more readily seeing its benefits, particularly as a way of keeping people in work, and widening their pool of potential employees.