For thousands of workers across the UK who are working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, many will be wondering why employers have been vehemently against flexible working for so long. Many employers have cited ‘business needs’ as reasons to reject flexible working requests but the last two months have shown that, when needed, many businesses can operate and thrive remotely. The consensus that many desk-based jobs need to be operated full time, permanently in offices has been challenged.
Many businesses of course have needed to furlough workers and access funding from the government’s job retention scheme to survive. Flexible working doesn’t always mean working from home instead of at a desk in your office job. For logistics workers, it means flexibility when choosing a shift rota or for prison officers, it means adapting start and finish times. Flexible working can apply to shift work as much as it does to the jobs that often dominate the space in this debate.
If an employer is serious about equality and diversity, then a growing consensus of campaigners and researchers have shown that flexible working is one solution that plays a significant role in pushing this on. UK workers work longer hours than the French, German, Scandinavians and Dutch yet are less productive than all of them.
Flexible working has shown to produce happier workers, lower costs and greater productivity.
When Zurich Insurance started tackling its gender pay gap, it found that one of the key causes of women not applying for more senior roles was the lack of options for flexible working. In April 2019 it began advertising all new roles with the option for part time or flexible working. Within three months it saw an increase of 25% in the number of women applying for jobs across all levels at Zurich and an increase of 45% amongst senior management roles. That is an astounding finding and unmistakeable evidence that other employers should follow suit.
Although thousands of people have proven in the last couple of months that work can be done from home, life might have felt slightly less productive when you might have had small children pulling at your laptops or clamouring for yet another snack. In non-pandemic life though, parents would still have access to childcare and what flexible working in normal circumstances means is that you can be a working mum and alleviate some of the all too common guilt by occasionally being at the school gate at the normal time. It means being able to pop over to an elderly parent’s house at lunchtime to provide care. It means more workers with disabilities in employment and it means still being able to do your job whilst having the autonomy to manage symptoms of health conditions. Trade unions often talk about how we rebalance power and give agency back to workers – flexible working is one effective, straightforward change that could do just that.
Many people are hoping that once coronavirus dies down enough that we are able to resume some normality, the culture around presenteeism may have shifted a bit. The recent government announcements lifting some restrictions means those who have been at home during this time may be starting to have conversations with their employers about how to transition back to work. Some are hoping that they may be able to negotiate a little more work/life balance for the future. For that reason, we are releasing a new guide that we hope will assist our members in navigating the processes of flexible working and make it more likely for you to succeed.
We will also be releasing some online advice for reps on how to support members that are making flexible working requests. Check out our new resource here.
If you want to get more involved in Community’s equalities work, you can join our Facebook group, or register your interest in becoming an equalities rep.
Lauren Crowley is head of equalities for Community union.