Parliament to consider making all job roles flexible by default

Proposed bill would see employers offering a choice of specific arrangements rather than employees requesting flexible work

Employers could be forced to make all job roles flexible by default, rather than putting the onus on employees to request flexibility, under a new bill making its way through parliament.

Under the flexible working bill, introduced yesterday by Conservative MP Helen Whately, employers would have to make all roles flexible – with employees allowed to choose from a predefined list of flexible arrangements – unless there was a sound business case for why the role could not be done flexibly.

Introducing her bill, Whately said the traditional 40-hour, five-day working week “made sense in an era of single-earner households and stay-at-home mums”, but it did not accurately reflect the reality of how people want to live and work today.

She argued flexible working would help close the gender pay gap, assist parents to share childcare responsibilities and help businesses retain staff who might seek better working arrangements elsewhere.

“At the moment, too many women are reluctantly dropping out of work or going part-time after having children because their employers won’t allow them flexibility,” Whately said, adding that the knock-on effect was it “entrenches the assumption that men are the breadwinners and women are the homemakers”.

“As a result, men don’t get to spend as much time as they might like with their children, women miss out on career opportunities, and the country loses out on the contribution they could and would like to make if only they could do slightly different hours or work some days from home.”

The bill is being supported by a number of campaign groups, including Pregnant Then Screwed, Young Women’s Trust, The Fatherhood Institute and the Flex Appeal – which held a rally (pictured) outside parliament yesterday.

Speaking to People Management, Whately explained should the bill go forward, the government would consult on the best practices for flexible working patterns and how to help employers who might be nervous to implement such working arrangements with their staff.

“Bringing together best practice examples will, I hope, be really helpful for businesses so that they can benefit from the more productive workforce we know you get if you get [flexible working] right,” Whately said. 

She added that working parents were more likely to stick with an employer if it offered flexible working. “The fact is that period of time that your children require most childcare isn’t that long, so the employer in the long term will benefit from supporting their employee through that period,” she said.

Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, who attended the rally yesterday, said the bill would offer a range of flexible working options for employers and employees to utilise, including part-time, compressed hours, working from home and job shares.

“What tends to happen at the moment is that businesses will say they will be flexible, but then people are wondering what that means and perhaps won’t apply for the job or already working for the company and are too afraid to ask for flexible working,” she said.

“[Under the bill businesses] would tick which ones were available to their employees, and then that employee would have a legal right to take that flexible working arrangement once they were employed.”

Brearley added that the bill would force employers to consider how they advertise their jobs and how job roles within their organisation can be done flexibly so the onus is not on the employee to “plead” for flexibility, and they can “have a life as well as a job”. 

The benefits of more flexible working arrangements have been widely touted by businesses in the past year, and recent research from Henley Business School found that implementing a four-day working week could save UK businesses £104 billion annually. The research also suggests compressed weeks and flexible working patterns lead to increased staff productivity and improved physical and mental wellbeing. 

Patrick Thomson, senior programme manager for fulfilling work at the Centre for Ageing Better, also welcomed the calls to make flexible working default for every job.

Thomson said the most common reasons people left work before state pension age included caring responsibilities and health conditions, and flexible working was effective in helping balance these with staying in work.

“We know many people struggle with inflexible working practices that can result in them leaving work before they are ready,” Thomson said. “That’s bad for them as individuals, impacting their earnings and social connections, and bad for the UK economy as employers lose out on the skills and experience older workers can bring.”