Flexible Working for Men and Women – Why it’s Important and Who is Doing it?

8 Mar 2017

Through technology allowing us to complete work not only at our desk, we’re gradually moving out of a culture of set-in-stone hours, and into one that ‘suits an employee’s needs’ (1) understanding that sometimes a job can be best completed by allowing for flexible working patterns. Academics at Lancaster University have suggested that by the end of the year more than 50% of businesses will adopt flexible working and 70% by 2020 (2). However, not only does flexible working benefit your employees, but it also has clear business advantages to you.
GOV.uk separates flexible working in 8 categories. These are (3):

Job Sharing
Working from home
Part time
Compressed hours
Flexitime
Annualised hours
Staggered hours
Phased retirement

Under the Employment Rights Act 1996 s. 80F (and modified by the Children and Families Act 2014 s. 131), all employees have the right to apply for flexible working so long as they have been in continuous employment for 26 weeks with the employer they are making the application to. The employer then has 3 months in which to approve, or not, the request, dealing with it in a reasonable manner (4).
For women and men alike there is a ‘gap between policy and practice’ (5) for working flexibly, thus the statutory right is all good and well, but ‘attitudes need to change along with legislation’ (6). Although some still favour the traditional approach to working hours, there are clear benefits to a business to encourage such flexible working policies as it allows for a better work-life balance, thus reducing staff stress and enabling them to feel valued, building loyalty within an engaged and motivated team. This not only helps to gain appeal as a company to work for and giving better retention rates, but also requires staff to use greater initiative through independent, self-motivated work. If as an employer you’re still not convinced that encouraging flexible working will benefit your business, or will work well for a particular role that an employee undertakes, the permanent flexible working alteration to your employees contract can be subject to the successful completion of a trial period, as agreed by both employee and employer (7).
Employers should consider and take seriously this way of working for men as well as women. As put well by the Guardian, ‘the bums on seats brigade needs to see flexible working as a real option for everyone, not the preserve of working mothers’ (8). Businesses should encourage men to work flexibly for the same reason that they do women; its not just women who might get a better work-life balance through flexible working.

Encouraging practices like flexible working increases ‘employee control’, which studies suggest ‘are likely to be associated with health improvements including improvements in physical health (reduced systolic blood pressure and heart rate), mental health (e.g. reduced psychological stress) and general health (e.g. tiredness and sleep quality)’ (9). Employees with better health are better equipped to do their job properly and therefore advance the business.

Encouraging flexible working may also aid business development in terms of enabling people to start earlier, or finish later, therefore broadening business bandwidth hours by using flexitime. In addition, flexible working may reduce travel expenses (by travelling outside of peak times), office-space expenses (if encouraging home-working), and allow for a broader range of ideas for business development through different experiences, skills and ways of thinking brought to a particular role (when encouraging job sharing).

Given that we are still in a place where women are not being able to reach the top as easy as men, with 25% fewer women in 2016 being promoted to partner than in 2015 in the top 10 UK firms (10), encouraging men to work flexibly could enable women who may otherwise lessen hours, quit or stifle their career due to childcare concerns, to reach higher potentials in their career, improving the representation of women in senior roles. Furthermore, with the current reality that the largest proportion of the senior workforce in firms is men, promoting flexible working for men too, allowing them to potentially be more productive in their role, only makes logical business sense. Flexible working arrangements is now something desired by senior executives not just juniors.

Flexible working is considered to be the most important benefit offered by employers for roughly two-thirds of people and increasingly law firms advertise their flexible working policies in response to it being such an important matter for employees. Having in place such policies relieves firms of having to decide on many separate formal application for flexible working, saving time for both the firm and the lawyers. Therefore the implementation of flexible working policies should be a priority because, as said in the Solicitors Journal, firms ought to be ‘valuing productivity over face time’, and to best support clients, solicitors must be as efficient as they can in practices and working methods (11). The Law Society’s survey of leading lawyers found that firms who ‘adopted flexible working practices allow a better work-life balance, and are attracting more talented staff’ (12).

Flexible working has been successful for businesses such as the firm PI Costing, who outlined that homeworking was an efficient method of working for their business. In their experience, employees working from home were 20% more efficient in terms of output than those remaining offices based. Furthermore, employees are held accountable to the work they do through the implementation of ‘monthly targets for recovering fees and the company holds records in respect of their output’ (13). PI Costing also found a reduction in their sickness rates and found that their employees valued the work-life balance policies significantly enough to ‘offset less competitive pay levels’ (14).

In 2016, Addleshaw Goddard, Baker & McKenzie, Berwin Leighton Paisner, BLM, Capsticks, Clifford Chance, DAC Beachcroft, Dentons, DWF, Foot Anstey, Herbert Smith Freehills, Hogan Lovells, Macfarlanes, Mayer Brown, Mishcon de Reya, Nabarro, Olswang, Schillings, Shearman & Sterling, Shoosmiths, Slaughter and May, Wedlake Bell and White & Case were all firms identified by Lawyer2Be to have implemented or be in the process of implementing flexible working policies. (15) (For a breakdown of their policies see https://l2b.thelawyer.com/issues/l2b-online/flexible-working-for-lawyers-whos-doing-what/)

Although women tend to be more involved in their children’s emotions and routine family activities (16), the UK Commission for Employment and Skills project in their ‘Working Futures 2014-2024’ report that there is a rising number of men who prioritise family life, with an expected increase of 7% for women working full-time and only an increase in 3% for men (17). In the mid-1970s an average father’s involvement in childcare during the week was less than 15 minutes per day, in the late 1990s this rose to 3 hours and by 2005 a third of parental childcare was undertaken by fathers (18). This evidently displays the growing trajectory of fathers seeing the importance of involvement in family life, and children appreciate it, with a survey suggesting that ’27% of families think of dad as the playtime favourite, with mothers second at 24% and siblings third at 21%’ (19). Furthermore, ‘amongst professional occupations (SOC 2) a substantial increase in part-time working is also projected’, which is a faster growth than in non-professional occupations, which is believed to be related to more women entering into this occupational group and a rise in people opting to use flexible working patterns (20). Therefore, as flexible working is growing and projected to grow further, businesses ought to become more encouraging of it, allowing the increasing number of men wishing to be more involved in family life as well as their career to do both, and not consider leaving employment all together for better competition.

Leading work-life balance organisation, Working Families, recently released their ‘Modern Families Index 2017’ report, which details the experiences of 2750 working parents across the UK last year, collating 250 responses from each of the 11 regions covered in the study. The Index is useful as employers can utilise this information to create a better working environment in their own businesses, by understanding the frustrations of others employees. With the reality that ’53% of millennial fathers seek a less stressful job and 48% would take a pay cut in order to get a better work-life balance’ (21) now is the time to seriously consider encouraging male employees to work flexibly. Many men feel unsupported in the workplace regarding childcare, with one-fifth in the study saying that their employers were unsympathetic and expected no disruption to work due to their parental duties. Furthermore, ‘44% had lied to their employer about family-related responsibilities that “get in the way” of work’ and over 50% of parents were adamant in their response that a flexible and family-friendly employer would make them happier, more productive and more motivated’ (22). Therefore changing the way we approach men who seek to work flexibly will not only likely increase businesses chances of recruiting and keeping good talent, but also aides to creating a better working environment where individuals don’t feel the stress of having to repeatedly lie to their employer.

On the same line, a noted difficulty for parents, and in particular men, with asking for flexible working is the pressure of not wanting to display a lack of commitment to their workplace and career. This has long been a concern for women, however there has been progress, with many women using flexible working such as job shares or an increase in part-time work. Since removing the barrier on who can apply for flexible working in 2014, 36% of employed women (with children under the age of six) applied to work flexibly, 80% of which was accepted to some degree (23). There is sometimes a presumption that women may wish to enter into flexible working once returned from maternity leave, but its rarely the case for men who have families. Arguably, ’the presumption of flexibility at work – in which early starts or late finishes, compressed hours or shorter weeks were the norm for men and women – would also make a dramatic difference’. Qualitative studies showing that working fathers feel ‘marginalised from access to flexible working opportunities, due to their managers’ assumption that they are the breadwinners’ (24), displays why a change in attitude is required, that encourages men to work flexibly, rather than disregarding it as purely feminine or motherly. Thus feeling the social acceptance to flexible working for men may encourage them to do so, giving a better work life balance, which may enable more motivated and successful employees, thus displaying a better commitment to their career, and your business, rather than less (25).

This is not to say that all fathers want to have flexible working patterns, just as not all mothers would request it, either. However promoting flexible working for men as well as women, where the job role can be done in a more flexible way, highlights options open to your employees to choose, displaying a modern culture of equality. It sends the message that you understand the difficulties of managing commitments and responsibilities that we all have outside of work, and are flexible to that. In doing so, you will find a happier more motivated team, that work better and make your business an even more reputable place to work.

References

  1. https://www.gov.uk/flexible-working/overview
  2. http://www.managers.org.uk/insights/news/2016/april/why-nows-the-time-to-deliver-on-flexible-working-new-research
  3. https://www.gov.uk/flexible-working/types-of-flexible-working
  4.  Employment Rights Act 1996, Part 8A
  5.  https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/513801/Working_Futures_final_evidence_report.pdf p. 8
  6. https://www.theguardian.com/women-in-leadership/2016/apr/28/flexible-working-secret-women-success-pay-gap
  7.  http://www.xperthr.co.uk/faq/can-an-employer-use-a-trial-period-to-test-whether-or-not-a-proposed-flexible-working-arrangement-would-work/104923/
  8. https://www.theguardian.com/women-in-leadership/2016/apr/28/flexible-working-secret-women-success-pay-gap
  9.  https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Roman_Pabayo/publication/41467611_Flexible_Working_Conditions_and_Their_Effects_on_Employee_Health_and_Wellbeing/links/551b872c0cf251c35b509c93.pdf p. 32
  10.  http://www.legalweek.com/sites/legalweek/2016/07/26/women-fall-by-the-wayside-in-2016-partner-promotion-round/
  11. https://www.solicitorsjournal.com/comment/firms-know-lawyers-want-flexible-working-hours
  12.  https://www.lawsociety.org.uk/news/stories/improving-flexible-working-in-law-firms/
  13.  http://ageactionalliance.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/How-small-firms-are-doing-it..pdf p. 7
  14.  http://ageactionalliance.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/How-small-firms-are-doing-it..pdf p. 7
  15.  https://l2b.thelawyer.com/issues/l2b-online/flexible-working-for-lawyers-whos-doing-what/
  16.  http://www.modernfatherhood.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Fathers-involvement-with-children1.pdf p .1
  17. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/more-time-with-the-family-and-flexible-working-the-future-for-men-in-the-uk
  18.  Fathers Network Scotland, Dad Matters, 2014
  19. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/jun/15/fathers-spend-more-time-with-children-than-in-1970s
  20. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/513801/Working_Futures_final_evidence_report.pdf p. 68
  21. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/jan/16/half-of-fathers-want-less-stressful-job-to-help-more-with-child-rearing
  22.  https://www.workingfamilies.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Modern-Families-Index_Full-Report.pdf p. 2 and 8
  23.  The Institute for Public Policy Research, Women and Flexible Working, 2014
  24. https://www.workingfamilies.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Modern-Families-Index_Full-Report.pdf p. 8
  25. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/mar/23/flexibility-at-work-isnt-just-about-women-men-want-more-from-family-life-too