Is flexible working the best kept secret to close the gender equality gap?
On the of 3rd of July, Penny Mordaunt (the Minister for Women and Equalities) announced an array of new consultations to improve gender equality in the workplace. Her ambitious roadmap sets out a vision that enables everyone to contribute to the economy and empowers women. The Gender Equality Monitor report, published alongside the roadmap, shows a continued gap between men and women in the areas of progression and pay.
One aspect of Mordaunt’s roadmap highlights the need to improve the general perception of flexible working in the workplace, and give equal consideration to work-life balance for all employees. Suggested actions for employers under consideration include ‘availability of flexible working in job adverts’, ‘identifying and promoting flexible working best practice and trailblazers’ and ‘supporting employers to provide quality, universal flexible working for all’.
So, where are organisations today and what will this mean for the future?
Flexible working in today’s workplace
Flexible working is no longer just allowing an employee, whether male or female, to work from home when they’re feeling under the weather. It’s an array of workstyles including part-time, term-time, flexitime, remote working, job-sharing, compressed hours and annualised hours.
Today, every full-time worker who has been with their organisation for 26 weeks or more can legally request flexible working under provisions made in the Employments Rights Act 1996, updated in 2002. Yet flexible working is often a sensitive subject in the workplace:
- One-third of UK managers have heard colleagues make derogatory remarks about flexible workers.
- Although 75% of organisations with 250+ people have flexible working policies, 47% of all employees still do not have flexible working encouraged at their workplace.
Flexible working: not just a ‘nice to have’ for employees
If flexible working is embedded effectively, it can have substantial benefits for organisations, as well as their employees.
For organisations, the impact centres on costs and reputation including:
- Attracting and retaining top talent
- Reducing ad-hoc and persistent absenteeism
- Lowering building costs
- Increasing levels of employee engagement; positively impacting productivity
- Resilience against emergency/disaster
For employees the impact centres on wellbeing and engagement including:
- Enhancing work-life balance
- Improving well-being
- Greater sense of control
- Reducing stress resulting from daily commute
These benefits may sound obvious, and they’re proven across various sectors. However, many organisations are still trying to balance the rewards of flexible working with the perceived disruption caused to engrained workplace norms.
In our experience, success requires organisations take a holistic approach to flexible working and push the boundaries of accepted norms and traditional ways of working. This may mean rethinking what work is: is work a place you go, or is it what you do, regardless of location? Successful flexible working programmes that address people’s needs are designed through simple, fair processes and underpinned by easy-to-use, intuitive technology.
Flexible working in tomorrow’s workplace: Re-tuning your approach
Our experience of implementing flexible working in organisations has identified seven specific actions organisations can take to improve the uptake of flexible working.
- Formalise flexible working policies and communicate them both internally and externally. The CIPD encourages the use of ‘happy to talk flexible working’ in job advertisements.
- However, policies alone are not enough; you must also change the mindset around flexible working. Share stories of role models and endorse from the top.
- Consider flexible working by default; many roles can accommodate a degree of flexibility regarding when, where and how work is done. By committing to flexible working as a working principle, you’ll gradually transform the legacy mindset that may exist and transform the attitudes and behaviours around flexible working.
- Simplify and clearly signpost the request process for employees. Ensure each request is automatically monitored to prevent inconsistent interpretation and application of the guidelines and rules.
- Promote team-based trials and pilots to help teams and line managers understand how to implement flexible working patterns in their teams.
- Enable job design. Managers might be able to manage remote teams but, if they’re not supported to re-design roles when someone asks ‘can I do four days’, they won’t be able to adapt.
- Take a holistic approach; people, process and technology are critical to make any flexible working initiative successful:
- People: Support a range of workstyles and help people adapt to flexible working;
- Process: Define a robust process and monitor its effectiveness and;
- Technology: Invest in and deploy collaboration and real-time messaging platforms and tools.
Organisations must review and track the impact and outcome of these actions. Measures should include employee engagement, productivity and building costs. Evidencing and quantifying these outcomes will strengthen the case for flexible working and further embed flexible working into an organisation’s culture.
If organisations re-tune their approach to support flexible working, they will reap the benefits for themselves and their employees. But just as importantly, by addressing the government’s call to action, they’ll make further strides towards gender equality in the workplace.
 Ibid. Institute of Leadership and Management, Flexible working, 2013.