The important difference between ‘flexible working’ and ‘working flexibly’

HR professionals need to go much further in accommodating true flexibility that will benefit disabled employees and those who provide care, argues Angela Matthews

Covid-19 and the increased move to home and remote working has brought flexible working to the fore. But it is important to remember that flexible working is not a new practice. It has long been core to an HR professional’s working ‘toolbox’ and disabled people have been pushing for more flexibility in jobs for many years. A research analysis conducted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2013 evidenced that the most common intervention reported by disabled people to help them stay in work was modified or reduced working hours. It was also the top adjustment that disabled job seekers said would make work accessible.

However, the breadth of what ‘flexible working’ means has increased in fluidity since the start of the pandemic. Some of the language and definitions that are emerging are fresh and require urgent consideration. The government’s recent consultation on making flexible working the default was a welcomed opportunity to discuss the practices that have worked and have opened up opportunities for more people during the pandemic, and how these could be reflected in updated legislation.

Business Disability Forum questions, however, whether the scope of the consultation truly reflects the flexible ways of working which have emerged and which are much needed by many disabled workers. As one disabled employee who contributed to BDF’s consultation response said: “We have been working from home full time for two years, but now we have to ask to work from home for just half of the time”. 

The crux of the issue is the term ‘flexible working’ itself. Flexible working is not the same as employees being able to ‘work flexibly’. Disabled workers and working carers have long said flexible working is not flexible enough for them. It’s easy to see why. 

Flexible working denotes a statutory process, whereby you can make just one request during a 12-month period, and that request has to be specific – ie. individuals must detail how they will work. This is not flexibility. It does not allow an employee with a fluctuating condition to do more hours one day and fewer the next, and it does not allow a working carer to take tomorrow off and work a day at the weekend instead.

Disabled people and carers have been telling us that they need employers that understand managing a condition or caring can change week by week or day by day, and can be so dependent on other factors, such as the capacity of the public health services, the resourcing of local social care provision, the effect of medication, or the health of the person an employee is caring for. Flexible working in its statutory form simply does not allow for the flexibility that many disabled workers and carers need. It is not equipped to truly ease the challenges life inevitably brings our way, often without warning or planning.

The term ‘default’ also needs clarification. In its consultation, the government interpreted the term to mean employees have the right to make a request from day one of employment. We would argue that not being able to request flexibility prior to day one (at the stage of an interview or before accepting a job offer, for example) excludes many people – particularly parents with young children, disabled people, and working carers – from either getting into the job market or moving within it. Addressing this point would truly make flexible working the default and is supported by many employers. As one of our member employers said: “Not all life changes happen while you are in permanent employment. An individual should not have to worry about changing jobs or companies because they will have to lose their flexible working”. 

Regardless of how the government moves on reforming flexible working, there is a role for HR professionals to play now. Recent research from the TUC has shown that HR professionals support the introduction of more flexible arrangements. You can lead the way by making working flexibly by default a consistently lived and practised reality in your organisation – in every team of your organisation – which transforms the working lives and opportunities of an increasing amount of skilled, experienced, and talented individuals. Don’t wait for the legislation to make your workplace more inclusive. 

Angela Matthews is head of policy at Business Disability Forum