The pandemic hasn’t drastically changed the flexible working landscape, we still need regulatory and cultural change

The lack of quality flexible working opportunities in the UK labour market remains a key cause of the gender pay gap. The lack of flexibility sustains women’s concentration in low-paid, low-skilled work. This also results in women’s under-representation at management level and in senior grades. Improving access to flexible working is thus critical to addressing women’s low pay, tackling women’s poverty and child poverty, and closing the gender pay gap.

A revolution in flexible working?

There is a popular narrative that flexible working has become the workplace norm as a result of the pandemic, with many reports stating that flexibility is officially here to stay.

Certainly, the labour market changes necessitated by the pandemic have demonstrated that many more roles are capable of being done on a flexible basis. In this way, the crisis has challenged the continued cultural assumption against flexible working which existed across many jobs and sectors.

There was also undoubtedly a sharp increase in remote working during the pandemic with welcome benefits for many workers, including disabled women. However, the crisis also served to highlight who has access to homeworking. Less than one in ten of those in the bottom half of earners say they can work from home, compared with 50% of workers in the top half of earners. This pattern is also gendered because the majority of low-paid workers are women. Also, no more than half of the UK workforce was working from home at any point during the pandemic with large numbers of workers continuing to work outside the home, or being furloughed.

During periods of lockdown, many women had to work from home as a result of public health restrictions but were often afforded little or no flexibility by their employer in order to do so. This created real challenges for women in maintaining paid work alongside increased childcare, care and home-schooling responsibilities.

Remote working is only one example of flexible working, and we also need to ensure that workers have access to hours-based flexibility in the aftermath of the pandemic. Indeed, it is different types of flexible working, with a specific focus on quality part-time working, that women with caring responsibilities need in order to access the workplace. Over the pandemic, with the exemption of home working, access to all other forms of flexibility actually declined.

Timewise research also highlights that the recruitment market is not yet mirroring the apparent seismic shift around flexibility. Only 24% of jobs in the Scottish labour market were advertised with flexible options by the end of 2020. This calls into question the extent to which a range of flexible working options have been normalised and adopted by employers.

It is therefore easy to overstate the impact of the pandemic in changing working practices and it cannot be presumed that employers have drastically changed their approach to flexible working as a result of the crisis. An increase in flexibility was ultimately a reactive decision by employers, taken in response to public health restrictions, rather than a strategic business decision. While some employers may have become convinced by the business case for flexible working, it is not pre-determined that any increase in flexibility will be maintained by employers. While 73% of employers are expecting more requests to work from home after the pandemic, only 36% of employers report being more likely to grant them.

Improving the policy framework

The current policy context is not conducive to creating a culture of flexibility. Legal provisions around the right to request flexible working are not fit for purpose. While the statutory right to request was extended to cover all employees in 2014, analysis by Close the Gap found that this has resulted in very little change, with no meaningful increase in women’s access to flexible working. Consequently, there remains an urgent need for legislative change to facilitate a move to a more flexible labour market across the UK.

Earlier this month, Close the Gap responded to the UK Government’s consultation on flexible working. The main policy proposal within the consultation is to make flexible working the default, introducing a day-one right to request flexible working. Close the Gap is supportive of this change, and is in agreement with the Women and Equalities Committee’s that the current 26 weeks service threshold is ‘unhelpful and unnecessary’.

Ensuring that the right to request is extended to all employees from their first day of employment will increase women’s access to the labour market, as well as enabling women to move jobs, potentially allowing women to access more working hours and higher paying roles. At present, the lack of flexibility when taking up employment all too often forces women into insecure work which is associated with low-pay and poor terms and conditions.

We also called for wider regulatory changes including an employee right to submit an unlimited number of flexible working requests, rather than the current limit of one per year. We also supported changes to require employers to outline alternative flexible working arrangements when rejecting a statutory request for flexible working.

At present, the business reasons for refusing a flexible working request are wide-ranging. In practice, this gives employers an almost untethered ability to reject requests, particularly if they are not persuaded of the business benefits of flexible working. Around three in ten requests from employees seeking to access flexible working are turned down by their employer. We therefore support the development of a more specific set of business reasons which would give employers less scope to reject flexible working requests because of negative attitudes to flexibility.

Shifting attitudes on flexibility

These changes have the potential to increase access to flexibility, enabling women to enter and progress within the labour market. However, as we have seen with the introduction of shared parental leave, policy shifts without surrounding cultural change are unlikely to mean transformational change for women’s experience of the labour market.

The UK and Scottish Governments have important roles to play in improving employer attitudes to flexibility. Over half of mothers (51%) who had their flexible working request approved said it resulted in negative consequences as they were treated less favourably as a result. Research conducted in Scotland last year also found that 52% of employers think flexible working creates more work for line managers, and 30% felt that those working flexibly are less committed to their career. The pandemic has not, therefore, drastically altered employer attitudes.

Employers should seek to create a workplace culture where flexible and part-time working is valued in the same way as full-time working patterns. This should include mandatory training for line managers on flexible working, developing a formal flexible working policy, highlighting the commitment of senior leaders to flexibility, and gathering data on who has access to flexible working.

A more flexible labour market brings clear gender equality benefits, but there is also a wealth of evidence demonstrating the business case for flexible working. Flexibility is associated with productivity gains, reputational benefits that make the company more attractive to the best candidates, and enhanced employee wellbeing and morale. Employers who offer flexible working are able to recruit from a wider talent pool, address skills gaps, and are more able to retain staff. Improving the availability of flexible working therefore makes good business sense.

A recent TUC survey highlighted that 87% of women want to work more flexibly in the future. Across the UK, we currently remain some distance from meeting that demand, necessitating both regulatory and cultural change. Building a labour market that is characterised by high-quality flexible jobs is essential to realising women’s labour market equality in the aftermath of the pandemic.

You can access Close the Gap’s full response to the UK Government’s consultation on Making Flexible Working the Default here.

Comments: 0 (Add)