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  • 1st Apr 2019

Flexible working and returners: What employers told us

Finding a way for care work and employment to function together is a struggle for millions of people across the UK, putting pressure on our finances and wellbeing.

It’s a significant barrier to achieving gender equality, as caregiving responsibilities continue to fall disproportionately on women. Exploring how men and women can combine careers and care in a fulfilling way is, therefore, becoming a top priority for societies striving for equality.

It’s also a challenge for employers. How can they transform entrenched working cultures to be more flexible? What can be done to address the barriers facing people who take extended periods out of work to care (‘returners’) in securing satisfying and supportive jobs?

We wanted to better understand the real-world experiences of employers. We interviewed HR staff from 20 organisations, seeking to understand perspectives from within organisations of a range of sizes and across a variety of sectors, from financial services to charities. On the 28th of March 2019 two reports (Flexible working report and Returners report) were published with the Government Equalities Office of this analysis.

Several themes emerged from these interviews. It is helpful to think of them in terms of different ‘spheres of influence’ that affect decision-making and behaviour: individual employees, managers and teams, the organisation, and broader society.

What employers told us about flexible working

While the HR professionals identified important operational challenges and practical limitations for flexible working, their strong feeling was that much of the problem was cultural. Fundamental to that challenge is the societal value placed on employed work and long working hours that foster the view that flexible working is career-limiting.

This creates a situation where flexible working is seen as the territory of a subset of employees, usually mothers, perceived to be less committed to their jobs. According to our interviewees, this subset of employees also felt that flexible working is a privilege they need to sacrifice salary and progression for. Doing more to make flexible working inclusive and gender neutral would encourage wider uptake and reduce the negative consequences for flexible workers.

It’s seen purely for mothers … It is hugely impactful on a woman’s career, … because they are the people who utilise the policy the most versus it being a well-being policy for all. If men utilised it as much as women it won’t impact their careers.”

Based on these findings, we identified some potential solutions that could help organisations offer effective flexible working:

  • Support individual employees making a flexible working request by simplifying and signposting the process
  • Support managers to implement flexible working with practical guidance or trial periods to help envisage how to implement flexible working
  • Make flexible working the organisational norm by advertising all job roles as flexible and accepting flexible working requests by default

What employers told us about returners

The direct experience that HR professionals had with returners was variable, resulting in mixed perceptions of what returners are like and need.

Those without experience in recruiting returners believed returners would be less confident during the recruitment process. However, HR professionals with direct experience of returners did not feel they were necessarily less confident, especially if a returner had recently been interviewed.

Some individuals need more support, more coaching, and more time. But for other individuals I would say … it’s exactly the same as any individual who is going for a role. And I think that would be true for the employment market generally, right. Obviously you have people going for interviews who always get the job, and people who maybe it takes a bit more time to do that.”

Many interviewees felt that returners were costly to their organisations, but it wasn’t clear whether this was justified. Some felt that since training should be designed to address the individual needs of all employees, there should be no additional burden from returners. Indeed, interviewees with direct experience of returners felt they did not have considerably greater training needs as a group than any other. It seemed that HR professionals without personal experience of returners imagined potential problems that those with more direct experience would not consider noteworthy.

In light of our findings, we recommend the following for organisations to support returning workers:

  • Signal returners are welcome in the organisation by encouraging them to apply in job adverts, or actively including them in recruitment
  • Ensure returners are not disadvantaged in recruitment by ensuring recruitment software or agencies do not automatically dismiss people with CV gaps
  • Help integrate returners in the organisation by discussing needs at induction. Some might have particular needs, others might not

These problems are complex and multifaceted, which can make them seem insurmountable. However, we believe that by applying some of these behavioural insights solutions we can enhance the efficacy of existing policy and processes in organisations in a way that begins to shift how we perceive the roles of men and women in work and at home.

For more insights and recommendations, download our full report below, funded and published by the Government Equalities Office.