Don’t make your employees ask for flexible working

New research has revealed that only one in five line managers has offered flexibility at a formal review – Emma Stewart explains why that needs to change

How good is your organisation at offering flexible working? And do you offer it proactively, or wait for your employees to ask? If your line managers are among the few who fall into the former category, that’s great. But if, like the majority, they have rarely or never offered even the potential to work flexibly, it’s time to change your approach.

Part-time and flexible working is high on employee and candidate wish lists – which makes it a valuable tool in terms of talent attraction and retention. And it’s popular with all ages, genders and sectors, with 87 per cent of employees saying they want to work flexibly. But the fact is, they’re rarely offered the chance. 

According to Timewise's 2019 Flexible Jobs Index, only 15 per cent of UK job ads offer flexible working. And our latest research, in partnership with the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) and based on a survey of 879 of its managers, has indicated that only one in five line managers has ever offered flexible working at an annual or performance review. Even worse, only one in 20 has proactively suggested it at least once at the point of promotion.

Why does it matter?

You might be thinking, so what? If you’ve got a robust flexible working policy, and you’re willing to give a flexible arrangement to people who ask, does it matter? Well, if flexible working is going to become more widespread, yes it does. 

The problem is, there’s still a lingering perception that part-time and flexible working are only really valid for women with children. And while attitudes are changing, the ‘request, response’ model is slowing progress down. It creates a sense that flexible working is something that requires specific circumstances, rather than being open to all.

If it were proactively offered to everyone, flexible working would become more widespread, more gender-neutral and no longer lumped together with childcare. This would increase take-up by non-parents, and open up more flexible career pathways. And over time, this would help employers achieve a healthier, happier, more productive and more inclusive workforce. 

What you can do to turn things around

If you think this is something you could improve, the solution is relatively straightforward. You need to build a proactive strategy that encourages your line managers to discuss flexible preferences at key career development points. For example, your framework for annual appraisals or performance reviews could include a requirement for managers to ask team members if they are happy with their working pattern, and make it clear that they are willing to discuss flexible alternatives.

But of course, strategy isn’t enough. As Niamh Mulholland, the CMI’s director of external affairs, says: “We know there is often a gap between flexible working policy and practice. The key to closing that gap is really good line management – which means ensuring line managers are properly equipped to help staff work flexibly, and empowered to champion flexible working and call out bad practice.”

So you’ll also need to offer training to your line managers to help make sure they’re implementing your strategy in the right way. This would involve teaching them how to discuss flexible working and upskilling them in job design, so that any arrangements that are agreed work for the business as well as the individual.

And yes, this will require an initial investment of time and training budgets. But as we’ve shown, the impact of flexible working on headline issues such as employee wellbeing and the gender pay gap will ensure it is worthwhile.

Emma Stewart is CEO of Timewise