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  • 8th Apr 2024

Are you ready to make the most of new flexible working legislation?

On the 6th April, new legislation came into force to support and enable greater flexible working. Every employee can now request flexible working arrangements from day one of their employment and make requests more frequently. Meanwhile, employers must respond to requests more quickly and provide a clear rationale for decisions taken.

These changes have come at an important time for the changing economy. 

Labour market inactivity remains high, mainly affecting long-term sick and disabled workers, older workers and those with caring responsibilities. Each of these groups is more likely to require flexible working arrangements in order to enter or stay in employment. Meanwhile, a recent CIPD report finds that 38% of employers report having hard-to-fill vacancies. 

Increased flexible working may solve both challenges.

However, many employers struggle to implement flexible working successfully. In our work, we’ve identified three barriers and provide suggestions for how to overcome them.

Overcome status quo bias and inertia with experimentation

The pandemic demonstrated how massive shifts in remote working happened virtually overnight when the situation demanded it. However, there have been no accompanying changes in part-time working since then, which is arguably more important for increasing access to jobs. Without a major shock, it’s easier to stick to the way things have always been done.  

Our work with Zurich Insurance UK and John Lewis demonstrates the value of experimentation and trying out new approaches.

Both organisations tested what happens when all jobs are advertised as available full-time or part-time by default, unless an exemption is made through HR. This approach created the impetus for staff across the organisation to figure out ways to introduce part-time working in their team, rather than stick with the status quo. As a result, both organisations saw massive increases in the proportion of applications from women, including to senior jobs.

Sometimes the process of introducing new flexible working policy gets bogged down in central planning and wanting to get it right, which can mean it gets shelved when it feels too difficult. To overcome this barrier, we recommend that organisations experiment with different flexible working arrangements, and allow employees to carry out short-term work trials. 

Change the model of the ‘ideal worker’ through normalisation 

The more unusual or rare flexible working is in an organisation the harder it is for people who work flexibly. In countries and organisations where the “ideal worker” is seen as someone who is always available for work, the stigma around flexibility is greatest

A whole organisation approach is needed to normalise flexibility. Starting with leaders who actively role model flexible working, to managers who proactively support their team, and policies that are designed to work with, and not against, the way we live and behave today. 

Sometimes mistaken perceptions of norms also have a perverse effect. With Santander UK, we found that men mistakenly thought that their male colleagues and managers were more disapproving of them working flexibly than they actually were. Letting men know the true levels of high support for flexible working among their male colleagues increased their intentions to work flexibly.

After the pandemic, the predictors of employees continuing to work remotely included greater individual control over remote work, less stigma towards remote workers and a higher proportion of colleagues working remotely. In other words, organisations where it was more normalised.

Rethink management practices

Successful flexible working requires trust and accountability. Strong managers develop good relationships with the people they manage. They hold employees accountable for delivering high quality work, rather than relying on presenteeism or face time as signs of productivity. There are high levels of communication and a sense of making it work together. This enables employees to work independently from their manager and be trusted to manage their workload.

The approach required to successfully manage a flexible workforce could prompt a much needed shift away from the poor management practices that contribute to the UK’s low productivity

A range of solutions could improve management practices in this area, from smaller prompts to managers to encourage them to discuss and model flexible working, timely management training delivered as soon as someone starts their first management role, to processes and policies designed to make it easier and more attractive to manage staff working more independently.

A vital step

BIT welcomes the new legislation as a vital step in the journey towards normalising flexibility in the UK. Greater flexibility has the potential to improve access to work for historically underrepresented groups, reduce the UK’s gender pay gap, support the nation’s health, and, if designed well, it may even be the answer to the UK’s sluggish productivity.