Have you seen an experienced colleague walk away from their job because it wasn’t flexible enough? Over a fifth of working mums say they have been forced out of their job because a flexible working request was turned down.
Workingmums.co.uk Annual Survey also found that 38% of those still on maternity leave would not return to their jobs if flexible working wasn’t granted and 47% are unsure what they would do.
Of those who had flexible working turned down over half said they felt the reasons given were unjustified.
The survey shows many women are still struggling to get the flexible working they rate as vital to their career progression and that they are willing to take fairly radical action in terms of retraining or starting their own business to get it. Almost a third had retrained in the last year and 63% say they have considered setting up their own business.
The survey also shows a large divide between those who have extremely flexible jobs and those who have no flexibility at all, with most falling into the middle. It is undoubtedly harder to have flexibility in some roles than in others. If you are an office worker, you may be able to work from home some of the week, something you can’t do if you work in a shop. Nevertheless, there is potential flexibility in most jobs, it is just a question of thinking creatively and finding what works in different professions.
Changing the mindset
A growing number of firms in a range of sectors are rethinking how they work and questioning traditional ideas, from start and end times for jobs and the location of work to meeting culture. In the first wave of flexible working, some employers got a lot of attention for the way they were able to rethink their working culture. Technology firms featured prominently, for instance, with their ability to do whizzy, technical things to enable remote working, but in the last couple of years more attention has been focused on organisations which are innovative in their own sector, sectors where flexible working is less the norm. They include shipbuilding, seen as male-dominated and with a clocking in and out tradition, and law, traditionally viewed as having a long-hours, macho culture.
It’s not just parents who want flexible working and last year the law on flexible working changed to reflect this. There are many employees who are turning their backs on the traditional 9 to 5 in an office whether it is older workers retiring later, those caring for elderly relatives, those with voluntary roles or the younger technological generation who are questioning old ways of doing things. And the business impetus for doing so is not restricted to the fact that employees tend to want more flexibility.
In her new book The Agile Organisation, Professor Linda Holbeche argues the case for a move to greater flexibility or agility so that UK organisations can cope with the demands of a 21st century world where innovation and the ability to “think on a sixpence” are key. She recognises that there are real reasons for resistance to change, including a reliance on short termism, a knee-jerk response to crisis which involves axing lots of jobs, genuine fear of risk and shareholder interest. And she says to change that requires a shift in understanding at the top of organisations and a recognition that if you want innovation “you shouldn’t treat people as goods and chattels”.
Those firms that tend to be most resistant to flexible working or which fail to go beyond offering the odd part-time role in order to comply with government legislation, are the larger SMEs. Start-ups and micro-businesses can be more nimble and can thrive on flexibility, hiring experienced professionals on reduced days whose hours can grow with the business. It is when they grow and their culture has to be written down in policies and regulations that inflexibility can set in since they don’t have the same HR and staff resources as the big corporates.
Many, though, are still able to innovate and offer their employees the kind of flexibility that research shows they value more than most other benefits. It’s not always easy and those employers who are struggling can learn a lot from their peers who have found ways to make it work in a whole host of different sectors.
Those that don’t look at way of offering flexibility in the future will end up missing out, particularly in professions where there are skills shortages. It’s not just about having flexible work policies. Flexibility needs to be embedded from the recruitment process right through to senior management. That means advertising that roles can be done flexibly as, depressingly, this is an area where there has been poor progress over the years and which traps many in jobs they might like to move on from or from applying to organisations where they may be able to make a significant contribution.
One year on from the extension of flexible working to all employees some may think the case for flexible working has been made, but we still have a long way to go.