Genuine flexible working can be a win-win arrangement for both workers and employers. It can allow people to balance their work and home lives, is important in promoting equality at work and can lead to improved recruitment and retention of workers for employers.
There is a real appetite among workers for a range of flexible working options. Our research shows more than four out of five (82 per cent) workers in Britain want to work flexibly in the future, rising to 87 per cent amongst women workers. The most popular forms of flexible working desired in the future are remote working, flexi-time, and part-time work but workers would also like job sharing, annualised hours, term time only working, compressed hours and mutually-agreed predictable hours to be made available to them.
To meet this demand from workers, we need to negotiate new rules that provide fair flexibility for everyone.
Before the pandemic, there was deep inequality in access to genuine flexible working. Too many people in working-class occupations were closed out of genuine flexibility and instead had worse terms and conditions masquerading as ‘flexibility’ forced onto them in the form of zero-hours contracts and other forms of insecurity. This so-called ‘flexibility’ strips workers of rights and makes them face irregular hours and therefore irregular income. Work is offered at the whim of their employer and last-minute shift changes are the norm. Future flexibility must provide predictability, including regular shift patterns and notice of hours to address the damaging impacts of insecure work.
When workers try and access genuine, two-way flexibility, for example flexi-time, remote working and part-time work, three in ten of their requests for flexible working are turned down, with employers having an almost unfettered ability to do so, given the breadth of the statutory “business reasons” that can currently be used to justify a refusal. The most popular form of flexibility, flexi-time is unavailable to over half (58 per cent) of the UK workforce. This number rises to nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) for people in working-class occupations.
The experience of the pandemic has significantly changed the landscape of flexible working. Since March 2020 all those who could work from home were expected to do so. This has brought about a popular narrative of home working being the common experience of the pandemic. All attention around flexible working is focused on the needs and experience of the third of the workforce who worked from home during the pandemic. Those who have worked from home are more likely to be in higher paid occupations and from London and the Southeast. However, over half of the workforce continued to work outside the home. These workers have not been able to access the flexibility available to home workers. With the exception of home working, all forms of flexible working have fallen over the past year, meaning that has been even harder than before for these workers to access flexible working arrangements.
As we exit the pandemic there is a real risk of a class and geographical divide being created between the flexible working haves and have nots. A recent survey of employers suggests that employers are more likely to not offer flexible work to staff who could not work from home during the pandemic. One in six (16 per cent) of employers surveyed said that after the pandemic, they will not offer flexible working opportunities to staff who could not work from home during the pandemic. This compares to one in sixteen (6 per cent) saying they will not offer flexible working opportunities to those who did work from home in the pandemic.
We cannot allow flexible working to become a perk for the favoured few – offered to a minority of the workforce who are able to work from home – and serving to reinforce existing inequalities.
As well as ensuring that there is fair access to flexible working, we need to make sure that flexible working benefits workers, helping them balance their work and home lives.
Demand for remote working has been transformed by the experiences of enforced home working during the pandemic. More than nine out of ten (91 per cent) of those who worked from home during the pandemic want to spend at least some of the time working remotely, with only one in 25 (4 per cent) preferring to work from an external workplace full time.
We need to ensure that as businesses respond to this demand, new flexibilities are implemented fairly, and address the challenges as well as opportunities of this form of work. Steps need to be taken to ensure that, after the pandemic, the experience of those working from home does not mirror the damaging one sided ‘flexibility’ experienced by so many on zero-hours contracts, with arrangements imposed that only benefit employers. Increased access to remote working must not come at the price of reductions to workers pay, increased intrusive remote surveillance, unsafe working environments, lack of access to union representatives, an increase in unpaid hours worked and draining, always-on cultures. No worker should denied the ability to return to working from an external workplace and be forced to work from home as the result of money saving office closures.
We believe trade unions are best placed to work with employers to ensure competing demands are reconciled and workers needs met. These include responding to the organisational challenges that new forms of flexibility can impose, including responding to production cycles and public demand for services. Trade unions have long experience of negotiating collective solutions to these problems that balance workers’ and business needs.
The government must set out a strategy on the future of flexible work and its integral role in shaping a better and more equal recovery for workers following the pandemic. This should include how they aim to respond to the impacts that increased remote working may have on transport, retail, hospitality and other sectors potentially affected by decreased office working in city centres. Increased levels of remote working could have substantial adverse effects for other workers in these sectors. The government’s strategy must include steps to ensure that the jobs of those who may be impacted by lower levels of office-based working are not threatened.
There is widespread recognition of the fact that the current legislative framework in relation to flexible working wasn’t working effectively before the pandemic. The government itself has highlighted the need for change in its 2019 manifesto commitment to make flexible working the default. We need the government to act without delay to introduce their long-promised Employment Bill and strengthen workers’ rights in a range of areas to make sure we have a system of genuine flexible working that works for all workers.