Making all forms of flexible working a success

Based on the results of new Acas research, Simone Cheng explores some of the most commonly cited barriers to implementing flexibility

A new Acas poll found that more than half (55 per cent) of employers in Great Britain expect an increase in staff working remotely or from home part of the week, but will implementation succeed, and what can we learn from the adoption of other flexible working arrangements?

In order to get some more detailed understanding of the current flexible working landscape, Acas has undertaken an analysis of 50 calls to our national helpline. The findings, as outlined in its new discussion paper, show a number of fundamental challenges facing both employers and employees. Left unaddressed, these could pose a barrier to organisations adopting and rolling out successful flexible working arrangements, including hybrid working.

“Apart from being a carer, what reasons are acceptable for flexible working?”

The good news is that most employees are aware of their right to request to work flexibly, with most having submitted an application at the point of contacting Acas.

However, there was also an indication that the right was still largely associated with parents and carers as opposed to all employees: a legislative change that took effect in 2014. So where does this leave us on our quest to gender equality? Flexible working carries the potential for a more equal sharing of caring and household responsibilities. But as previous Acas research has noted, ongoing interpretations of it as a woman’s right and one which correlates with a lack of work commitment still presents barriers to uptake by men. 

“My manager did not say there is a formal way of doing this”

While employees in our analysis generally knew of their option to apply for flexible working, confusion arose when determining whether their application constituted a formal, statutory request which would trigger the statutory procedure. 

Awareness of policies had much to do with this, with poor communication from managers adding to employees’ uncertainties around the correct channels through which to make an application. This then had knock-on effects on their understanding of corresponding rights and obligations. 

Others expressed uncertainty over whether a flexible working arrangement would vary their contract of employment and to what extent – a common issue Acas advisers are dealing with in relation to hybrid working, particularly where the model is being implemented across the organisation.

“Do they not have a duty then to relook at that?”

One of the recurring themes in our call analysis was a perception by both employers and employees of a right to work flexibly, as opposed to a right to request. While employers sought reassurance that they had sufficient business grounds to reject a request, employees argued for why their request should be granted.

Rejections naturally gave rise to feelings of unfairness, but these appeared particularly strong where there was a lack of clarity or disagreement over the business reasons cited, or a belief that fellow colleagues had access to the same or similar flexible working arrangement. 

Despite proposals of alternatives and the option to appeal in a number of cases, an inability to reach a compromise led to a sense of despondency, and for a small group, legal action by way of an employment tribunal. 

The key takeaways

As the government recognises in its current consultation, legislation plays an important role but is not sufficient on its own to create the huge behavioural and cultural shift we still need to make flexible working the default. 

The success of any flexible working arrangement, including hybrid, will depend heavily on awareness, mindsets and practices. Our analysis shows we need to prioritise the following actions on our journey to achieving a flex culture:

  • Shift widespread attitudes to make flexible working more inclusive. Examples of how employers can encourage more equal uptake include role-modelling at senior levels and advertising jobs with flexible working options

  • Concerted efforts by employers to simplify and communicate their flexible working procedures, particularly as we face the prospect of more requests via both formal and informal channels  

  • Transparency around decisions, with training for managers to respond to requests in a fair and consistent manner. As employees rethink their priorities, employers could see a myriad of requests for different working patterns, and may well find it difficult to refuse requests to work from home where the pandemic has proven it possible.

Simone Cheng is a senior policy adviser at Acas