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Are you ready for the new flexible working regulations?

On 6 April 2024 the updated flexible working regulations come into effect. As an employer, it’s vital that you’re ready for the changes.

As working practice evolves, and with the introduction of employees being able to request flexible working from day one of their employment, it’s time to ensure that your organisation is prepared to support new and existing employees when it comes to working flexibly.

Here we’ll explain what you need to do to adhere to the new regulations. Alongside this we’ll unpick some of the barriers to flexible working, highlight good practice, and set out how to reap the benefits of a flexible workplace.

What’s changed?

The changes to flexible working regulations are:

  • All employees will now be able to make two requests in any 12-month period.
  • Employers are now required to deal with requests within two months of receiving the request.
  • The employee no longer has to set out or justify the impact of their proposed flexible working arrangement.
  • Before rejecting a flexible working request, the employer must consult with the employee. If the request is refused the employee can still appeal the decision.

These changes present an excellent opportunity to refresh your current practice, and improve your approach to flexible working. Here’s how.

Dealing with requests: How to get flexible working right

Update your flexible working policy

With the new flexible working regulations now in place, it’s important to ensure that your flexible working policy reflects these changes. Any accompanying guidance should also be updated.

This will help ensure managers are made aware of the latest changes and can respond effectively to new requests. Staff should be also informed of the updated policy and know where to access this. This will provide greater understanding of the process of how to submit a request, and how this should be handled. It’s good practice to regularly review your policies and check where they can be improved.

Engage senior leaders to show your commitment to flexible working

Senior leaders are key to encouraging flexible working in your organisation and fostering an inclusive workplace culture where it can thrive. With strong messaging and visible leadership about your organisation’s commitment to flexible working you can gain and retain talent, improve your business, and advance gender equality in your workplace. Leaders can do this by making a statement to staff about the use of flexible working and its benefits, ensuring employees are aware of how flexible working is done and can be used in your organisation.

Support your line managers to manage flexible working in their teams

Line managers are often the gatekeepers to flexible work. If they’re hesitant or resistant to this can discourage employees from submitting a request. They might assume that frontline workers or particular roles can’t work flexibly. Some line managers might never have managed flexible working before. This can lead to inconsistency in access to flexible work in your organisation. Where requests aren’t handled fairly, this creates unnecessary barriers.

No jobs should be automatically ruled out for flexible working and your flexible working policy should make this clear. Many businesses successfully have senior posts operating on a job-share or part-time basis, and it’s helpful to assume that all jobs can be done flexibly unless there are very clear business reasons why not. Data shows 63% of frontline workers are already working flexibly, showing this is a possibility for roles that are assumed to be more challenging to accommodate. By ensuring line managers are confident in dealing with requests and managing flexible working in their teams, you can make flexible working work for your employees and your organisation.

Trial new flexible working arrangements

With the many types of flexible working, it’s understandable that you may be unsure of what will work in your organisation. Trialling a new flexible working pattern is an easy way of finding out what works well for staff, for teams, and for the organisation. You can work with the employee to agree the length of the trial period and how you’ll evaluate the suitability of the new pattern.

Talk about flexible working from the outset

Another action that will support flexible working includes advertising all jobs as being considered for part-time and/or flexible working. Mentioning the availability of flexible working in adverts will help you attract applicants from a wider talent pool. Recent research shows that 60% of employers have said that flexible working has improved the quality and quantity of candidates. Talking about flexible working during interviews will let candidates know they are able to ask for it if they need it, making it easier to fill vacancies. Discussions on flexible working needs should also form a key part of inductions for new staff.

Ask your staff about their experiences

Looking at how flexible working is used in your organisation will help you understand what works, and what could be improved. The best way to do this is by gathering staff perspectives on their experiences, for example via a staff survey. You can also look at your HR data to identify who is more likely to request flexible working and/or to have their request approved. This will help identify if there are barriers in particular teams, or for particular groups of staff, enabling you to make targeted improvements.

Raise awareness of how employees already work flexibly

Some staff may not be aware that they’re able to work flexibly or don’t know how to approach the topic with their manager. By raising awareness of how flexible working is already used in your organisation you will show your employees that you’re open to flexible working, and encourage them to ask for it if they need to.

Share profiles of employees on different working patterns at different levels, for example senior leaders who work part-time, or teams where managers allow staff to vary start and finish times to enable them to manage childcare. Use a variety of staff communication methods to help reach all employees within your organisation.

By taking these actions, you can build a positive working culture around flexible working which means the new changes to the flexible working regulations will feel easier to manage.

Why women need flexible working

Flexible working is good for your organisation, but it’s also an essential for women’s workplace equality. Many of the causes of the gender pay gap are driven by women’s greater responsibility for unpaid care and the difficulties they still face in combining this with work, especially good quality work.

Women make up the majority of part-time workers. Part-time work is typically concentrated in lower-paid roles and in stereotypically female work, such as care work or admin. Because women often use part-time work to enable them to manage childcare this means they can end up trapped in work that’s below their skill level, seeing their talents wasted.

Where flexible or part-time working isn’t seen at senior levels, this reinforces the idea that caring roles are incompatible with progression. This means you can’t be sure you have the right person for the role, and it’s likely that you’re not making the most of your talent.

Flexible working can also support women’s particular health needs, for example enabling them work flexibly to manage symptoms associated with menopause or menstruation that can impact on their ability to work well.

Recognising the positive impact flexible working can make for women in the workplace can help encourage buy-in from senior leaders and line managers, and contribute to work to closing your gender pay gap. Taking a best practice approach will help you realise the benefits of a flexible workforce, both for your organisation and for your employees.

Helpful resources and further steps you can take

At Close the Gap, we offer a range of tools and resources to help support you to build good flexible working practice.

Our Close Your Pay Gap tool is useful for large employers who are publishing their gender pay gap and want to determine the key factors behind it. It uses your pay gap data, along with your answers to a short set of questions, to produce a personalised report and action plan for your company.

For SMEs our Think Business, Think Equality toolkit will support you to realise the benefits of equality and diversity in your business and to improve your employment practice. Here you can receive tailored feedback to improve your flexible working practice alongside other key areas.

Our Equally Safe at Work accreditation programme is designed to support employers in the public and third sectors. It provides employers with direct support to advance gender equality and tackle violence against women, through improving working practice across six key standards, including flexible working. To find out more, visit our website www.equallysafeatwork.scot

IWD 2024: Menopause is a health issue, and a workplace issue

Every year the International Women’s Day theme aims to highlight the ways in which gender inequality is still evident in society, and what needs to happen to address that. This year’s theme is 'Inspire Inclusion'.

Inclusive workplaces can help to advance women’s workplace equality, but there are still many ways in which workplace culture doesn’t feel inclusive to women. A clear example of this can be seen in working women’s experiences of menopause.

Stigma and stereotypes at work

Menopause is a normal part of women’s lives, but there’s still widespread discomfort around it, particularly at work. Many women don’t feel comfortable talking about it because of stigma and stereotypes. When managers and colleagues avoid the subject, it makes it even harder for women to get the support they need.

But menopause is a workplace issue. A quarter of women are likely to experience difficulties associated with menopausal symptoms at work. Workplaces that don’t recognise the impact of menopause on employees can make things even harder. Women who take sick leave because of their symptoms can be penalised by absence management processes. Where an employee isn’t allowed to take regular breaks, or can’t access bathroom facilities easily, they’ll find it harder to deal with heavy bleeds. Line managers may unfairly refuse a flexible working request that could have made it easier for an employee to manage their symptoms.

Without support, employees experiencing menopause may feel compelled to reduce their hours, or even leave their job altogether. Where workplace support isn’t available, this sends a message to women that they aren’t valued, and their wellbeing isn’t taken seriously.

How employers can create inclusive, menopause-aware workplaces

Menopause is a health issue, and legitimate reason to need support in the workplace. Employers have a key role to play in ensuring women can access the support they need. By making small adjustments to policy and practice, employers can make a real difference to the lives of employees who are experiencing menopause.

Close the Gap has created a resource for employers that sets out how to build a menopause-aware workplace. This includes increasing awareness of menopause and how it impacts women, creating a package of workplace support measures, and introducing a menopause policy to help line managers feel confident providing support.

Increasing awareness of menopause and how it impacts women in the workplace is key to ensure women are able to access the support they need. This includes building understanding among employees more generally, alongside targeted information for key people who will be providing support in the workplace, e.g. line managers and HR advisers.

Employers can create a tailored package of support measures that women experiencing menopause are able to access in their workplace. This can include menopause-sensitive absence management processes, access to free period products including specific products for heavy flow, regular breaks, and simple adjustments like providing a desk fan or moving an employee’s working location to a cooler spot.

Having a specific policy on menopause will help encourage women to ask for support and provide key people with the information they need to provide it. Line managers have a particularly important role - the ‘supervisor effect’ has a big influence on women’s experience of work, how comfortable they feel asking for support, and what support they get. Employers need to make sure line managers are confident providing support and know what’s expected of them.

Creating menopause-aware workplaces will help employers to advance gender equality in their wider workplace. That’s good for women, good for employers, and good for Scotland’s economy.

Women pay the price of gender inequality and poverty

The 16 days of activism against gender-based violence gives focus to the continued need for action to eradicate violence against women (VAW). VAW occurs at epidemic levels with one in three women affected globally. In Scotland, one in four women experience domestic abuse in their lifetime, and 70% of women report that they’ve experienced or witnessed sexual harassment at work.

VAW is not often seen as a workplace issue, despite it affecting all aspects of women’s lives. Perpetrators of domestic abuse use a range of tactics to disrupt women’s employment as a way to coerce and control. This can include using workplace resources such as phone and email to threaten, harass or abuse them. Other tactics can include destroying work clothes and personal documents which may prevent them from applying for jobs in the first place. In addition, we know that the cost of childcare is prohibitive for many women, and so the reliance upon abusers to provide childcare which is then deliberately withdrawn is damaging to women’s wellbeing, their ability to do their job, and ultimately their career prospects.

There is a critical link between VAW and poverty, with financial dependency and poverty being primary risk factors for victim-survivors, making it difficult to leave abusive relationships. We know that VAW is both a cause and consequence of gender inequality, and that women’s poverty is intrinsically linked to this and sustains these ingrained inequalities faced by women. This is why it is essential to address women’s labour market inequality and tackle women’s poverty to prevent violence against women.

The link between violence against women and women’s labour market inequality

Women’s labour market and economic inequality reduces their financial independence, restricts their choices in employment and creates a conducive context for VAW. Living in poverty can also make it harder for women experiencing violence or abuse to move on and maintain employment.

Women are not a homogenous group and their experiences of men’s violence and also workplace inequality, are shaped by the intersecting and compounding inequalities they face. For example, socioeconomic background has an influence on women’s labour market outcomes, with women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds being less likely to be represented in higher paid jobs, and more likely to be in lower-paid, stereotypically female, work such as care and cleaning. This drives the higher level of female poverty which diminishes women’s options in the face of violence and abuse.

In tackling women’s poverty, women’s labour market inequality, and wider gender inequality, it’s vital to understand that barriers to paid employment are costly to women’s safety. Employment itself is not necessarily a guaranteed route out of poverty either, due to the low levels of pay and the prevalence of zero-hour contracts that are associated with ‘women’s work’. Women are significantly more likely to be employed on zero-hour contracts than men, with this figure growing sharply in the last decade. Moreover, it is not just the insecure nature of these jobs that are a threat to women’s long-term financial stability and overall safety, but zero-hour contracts are notoriously characterised by low pay, with just 40% of employees on zero-contracts having an hourly earnings that matched (or higher than) the 2021 Living Wage. The financial instability due to these precarious contracts can limit women’s choices when facing violence and abuse. Addressing women’s labour market inequality is therefore a necessary step in ending violence against women.

The gendered nature of poverty and its link to violence against women

There is no escaping that poverty is gendered in Scotland. Women are more likely to be living in poverty than men, with a disproportionate number of women, particularly single mothers living in poverty. Women in Scotland who are on low incomes are more likely to be impacted by the cost of living crisis, especially with deepening poverty and facing hardship including hunger, going without essential items, and inability to afford to heat their homes.

Moreover, it has been acknowledged also that worsening debt is connected to the gendered cycle of violence, with debt being linked to experiences of domestic abuse. Poverty itself is associated with domestic abuse as both a cause and a consequence of violence against women which is why it is relevant in understanding the connection between poverty and gender inequality.

While financial abuse and economic abuse are often used interchangeably, the difference is that economic abuse consists of the many different ways an abuser may control someone’s economic situation, extending to the restriction of accessing food, transport, employment, and housing. Financial abuse is thus a sub-category of economic abuse, involving the use or misuse of money to control someone’s life which may include coercing a victim-survivor into taking on debt, or controlling their finances. A survey of 4,000 women found that women were more likely than men to experience financial abuse with over half of women reporting that they experienced financial abuse having personal incomes below £20,000 annually. Women’s exposure to abuse is prolonged by poverty, as victim-survivors often cannot afford to leave an abusive partner, especially in the current context of the cost-of-living crisis.

For those who experienced economic abuse, the most common stage at which the abuse started was when their pay decreased due to the coronavirus, with 35% reporting this. This reinforces that in times of financial uncertainty, whether due economic shocks, low pay or poverty, this is a conducive context for abuse to happen. Women are more likely than men to report economic abuse, with 89% of women who experienced economic abuse, and reported experiencing other forms of abuse with higher rates of physical, emotional and sexual abuse compared to men. The long-term impact of economic abuse can make it more challenging for victim-survivors to rebuild their lives. While economic abuse is more likely to occur within the context of domestic abuse, it is also prevalent in other situations, including when a woman is being sexually harassed at work.

Structural inequalities require structural solutions

To prevent violence against women, it’s critical to address gender inequality in the workplace. By advancing women’s labour market equality, and dismantling gendered barriers such as inflexible work, the high and prohibitive cost of childcare, inadequate support for victim-survivors in the workplace, low-paid and low-quality part-time roles, only then can we be closer to eradicating men’s violence against women.

Close the Gap’s Equally Safe at Work accreditation programme directly supports employers to improve their employment practice to advance gender equality at work and prevent violence against women. In the most recent roll out of the programme, 14 new public and third sector employers have become accredited, taking the total to 18 across Scotland. Findings from the evaluation in local government, NHS and third sector in 2022-2023 found that employers across sectors have, as a result of participating in the programme, taken a wide variety of action to improve their employment practice to be more gender- and VAW-sensitive. This included but was not limited to, the introduction of special leave for victim-survivors, the implementation of new policies including a VAW policy and a standalone sexual harassment policy as well as the development of new data collection systems. Further action saw employers review and update existing policies on flexible working, recruitment, equal opportunities, and organisational change. Alongside this, innovative awareness-raising campaigns highlighted the organisational commitment and dedication from employers in preventing VAW.

Employers have a critical role to play in preventing violence against women in and outwith the workplace, and advancing gender equality. However, to rely solely upon increasing women’s labour participation as the solution to gender equality, and a safeguard against poverty, is reductive. Further understanding and action is required to address the structural inequalities within the labour market. These contribute to and sustain women’s inequality, especially the systemic undervaluation of women’s work which drives women’s and children’s poverty.

To find out more about Close the Gap or Equally Safe at Work, please visit the website at www.closethegap.org.uk or www.equallysafeatwork.scot

 

 

New report: Findings from the evaluation of Equally Safe at Work in local government, NHS and third sector

At Close the Gap, we’re always keen to understand what works in creating change for women in the workplace. One area where we’ve seen success in our work is Equally Safe at Work, our innovative employer accreditation programme that supports employers in local government, NHS and third sector develop gender- and VAW- sensitive employment practice. The programme was first piloted between 2019 and 2020. Over the past 18 months, we’ve been working with a new cohort of councils and introduced a pilot in the NHS and third sector. As a result of the recent roll out, we’re delighted that 14 new employers have become accredited.

To measure the effectiveness of Equally Safe at Work, developing an evaluation framework was a core element of the work. We collected qualitative and quantitative data throughout the accreditation process which included disseminating employee surveys, holding focus groups with women working in lower-paid roles, and conducting semi-structured interviews with staff leading on Equally Safe at Work in their organisation. Collecting this data is integral for understanding whether changes being made as part of Equally Safe at Work are reaching staff at all levels in the organisation. It also provides Close the Gap, and participating employers, with a greater understanding of the experiences of women working across the public and third sector in Scotland.

Our recently launched Equally Safe at Work evaluation report highlights the positive impact the programme has had on local government employers and also provides details on the effectiveness of the pilot in NHS boards and third sector organisations. The reports includes key findings from the data collected through the programme and celebrates the wide variety of activities and initiatives introduced by employers that will make a real difference for women in their organisation.

Evaluation methodology

While a variety of data was collected throughout the programme, the employee survey and focus groups with women working in lower-paid roles provided helpful insight into women’s experiences of work. The employee survey captures data on access to flexible working, access to learning and development opportunities and barriers to reporting VAW. The survey also asks questions on attitudes towards and behaviours around gender equality and VAW, and staff experiences of VAW. Across the three sectors, 7,575 respondents completed the survey. The data collected in each organisation is shared with employers with recommendations that link to the criteria of the programme. One council lead shared how useful they found this:

The employee survey presented questions to staff for the first time. We will be keeping some of the questions in our employee survey that happens every three years. It will start to give us data about the picture for people and their experiences.”

Another fundamental element of our data collection is conducting focus groups with women working in lower-paid roles. It’s important to hear the voices of these women because they work in jobs which are undervalued in the economy, are among the lowest grades in each organisation, and they report feeling excluded and omitted from discussions happening in their organisation. In total 62 women catering workers, cleaners, care workers, admin, library assistants, and nurses shared their experience of work. The survey and focus group data provides us with a rich picture of women workers’ experiences in Scotland. The focus group data is particularly important as women working in lower-paid roles are routinely ignored by policymakers and employers in action to tackle the gender pay gap.

What the evaluation told us

As a result of the programme, employers across the public and third sector have improved their employment practice to be more gender and VAW sensitive. This was highlighted by a variety of changes made to the workplace which includes:

  • Developing a VAW policy.
  • Developing a sexual harassment policy.
  • Sharing video with all staff of the Chief Executive explaining what occupational segregation is and how it impacts the council.
  • Implementing new systems to collect data on women returning from maternity leave and other returners.
  • Including a question on the availability of flexible working in internal vacancy control forms for recruitment managers.
  • Introducing new systems to collect data on experiences of VAW, including whether victim-survivors were satisfied with how their disclosure was handled.
  • Setting up a staff women’s network to provide insight and consultation on changes happening in the council.
  • Collating and analysing data on flexible working refusals and reasons for refusals and using this to inform practice.
  • Reviewing and updating their equality policy to include information on occupational segregation, VAW, sexism, misogyny, and intersectionality.
  • Reviewing and updating policies on flexible working, recruitment, and organisational change.
  • Third sector organisations analysed and published data for the first time on mean pay gap data, median pay gap data, and occupational segregation.

Challenges and opportunities across sectors

The evaluation identified a number of opportunities and challenges that arose during the accreditation period. The pilot in the NHS and third sector provided valuable learning on implementing Equally Safe at Work in new sectors. Importantly it has continued to be an effective mechanism for supporting employers to change policies and practice. For example, we learned in the previous pilot with councils that organisations were most successful when introducing new policies or practices, rather than updating and reviewing previous work. For the third sector, since many of the activities undertaken during the pilot were new, employers were able to make substantial changes to the workplace in a relatively short period.

Some of the challenges faced by all employers included budget constraints, and issues with recruitment and staffing. This resulted in two organisations withdrawing from the programme due to a lack of staff to drive the work forward. This also meant that those leading work on Equally Safe at Work had conflicting priorities and in some cases, the work was led by a graduate intern. Another contributing factor was the impact of Covid-19. Through the Covid-19 pandemic, VAW and gender equality became deprioritised as many key staff were redeployed into crisis management. As a result, many organisations are catching up on key equalities work from that time, which means that progress on gender equality and preventing VAW has slowed.  

Through the pilot with NHS boards and third sector organisations, Equally Safe at Work has been an effectiveness mechanism for facilitating change in different sized and types of organisations across Scotland. The prescriptive nature of the programme provides a clear framework for employers to work through within a specific timeframe. For some employers, this is the first time they have had a focus on progressing work on gender equality and VAW, and they have told us that the programme has created momentum for further change.

“I think development level is a good overall first step in the journey to improving awareness and ensuring positive experiences for staff in the organisation around gender equality and violence against women.”

Third sector lead

“I would definitely recommend the programme. It’s well run. Goals are tough but achievable. Would recommend it to organisations of all size and even if they can’t complete everything, there is so much useful learning.”

NHS lead

“My advice would be to be open. Lots of organisations would want to make it political, gender equality benefits everyone. Do exactly what’s in the manual and to not just tick boxes, to really dive deep into each standard. Don’t do the bare minimum.”

Council lead

The evaluation of the pilot in the NHS and third sector has highlighted key learning that we will be embedding into the programme over the next few months. We will then be inviting new employers to join the programme in Spring 2024. In the meantime, you can read more about Equally Safe at Work on our website, www.EquallySafeatWork.scot

Congratulations to the newly accredited Equally Safe at Work employers!

Our Equally Safe at Work team has been busy working with a range of employers over the last 18 months to enable them to develop improved gender-sensitive employment practice and prevent violence against women. We’re now delighted to announce that 14 new employers have received accreditation in recognition of the work they’ve delivered to create better workplaces for women workers. These employers include:

Bronze accreditation:

  • Fife Council
  • East Ayrshire Council
  • Inverclyde Council

Development accreditation:

  • West Dunbartonshire Council
  • Highland Council
  • Angus Council
  • Glasgow City Council
  • Perth and Kinross Council
  • NHS Ayrshire and Arran
  • Public Health Scotland
  • Healthcare Improvement Scotland
  • NHS Dumfries and Galloway
  • Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland
  • Voluntary Action North Lanarkshire

We want to congratulate all the employers who have participated in the Equally Safe at Work programme and the great work they have done to progress gender equality and better support victim-survivors in the workplace.

We are pleased to see so many employers achieve accreditation through a difficult period of budget constraints, recruitment challenges, and the ongoing cost of living crisis. Also, for the NHS boards and third-sector organisations, this was the first time we have tested out Equally Safe at Work in new sectors. The pilot with NHS boards and third sector organisations provided us with key learning, including how to roll out the programme to different sizes and types of organisations, for example, the differences in working with organisations ranging from 15,000 staff to 7 staff. Overall, the pilot with NHS boards and third sector organisations, and the rollout with councils, has been successful in enabling employers to develop gender and VAW-sensitive employment practices. The evaluation of this work shows the impacts that employers have identified in their own organisations:

“The fact that we have made the change to the gender-based violence policy, and added paid time off for seeking refuge, probably wouldn’t have thought of doing this if not part of the programme. It’s about making women more confident about raising these issues at work, so they know they’re entitled to this. It raises the profile and makes it more acceptable to take up.”

                                                                                                                   - Local government participant

“We introduced collecting data on flexible working refusals. We wouldn’t know before if this had been denied but now reasons for refusal have to go through HR and highlights where this is about safety.”

                                                                                                                   - Local government participant

“Through the programme, we’ve improved our recruitment practices, introduced special leave, made flexible working more accessible. We are doing the work and making progress on equality in our organisation.”

                                                                                                                   - Third sector participant

 

What's next

We have been collecting qualitative and quantitative data throughout the programme to measure whether the programme has resulted in change. We will be launching the evaluation report with our findings and key considerations for moving forward on the 28th of November. For more details on how to attend, visit the Eventbrite link.

For more information on the Equally Safe at Work programme, you can visit our website www.EquallySafeatWork.scot

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