Helen Whately: Employers should make all jobs flexible by default

Posted On: 
15th July 2019

Flexible working is good for business, the economy and work-life balance. It must be offered as standard, not haggled for later down the line, says Helen Whately

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The 40-hour, five-day working week made sense in an era of single-earner households and stay-at-home mums, but it no longer reflects the reality of how many modern families want to live their lives.

At the moment, too many women are reluctantly dropping out of work or going part-time after having children because their employers won’t allow them flexibility. This entrenches the assumption that men are the breadwinners and women are the homemakers. As a result, men don’t get to spend as much time as they might like with their children, women miss out on career opportunities, and the country loses out on the contribution they could and would like to make – if only they could do slightly different hours or work some days from home.

That’s why I’m introducing the flexible working bill, to make all jobs flexible by default unless the employer has a sound business reason why particular hours in a particular place are required.

An estimated 87% of employees would like to work flexibly, but just 9.8% of jobs paying over £20,000 are advertised as flexible. Conservatives in government introduced the right to request flexible working, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is planning to consult on whether employers should have to consider whether a job can be done flexibly and, if it can, to make that clear in the job advert.

This is great progress, but it’s starting from a presumption against flexibility. My bill simply flips the question and asks employers to explain why a job can’t be done flexibly.

We know how powerful the psychology of the opt-out is compared to the opt-in. For example, pensions auto-enrolment has got 10 million more people saving for their old age. Let’s apply the same principle to flexible working.

The potential benefits to individuals, businesses and the economy are huge. Closing the gender pay gap could add an extra £150bn to our GDP by 2025. While female employment is at a record high, 42% of women are working part-time compared to 13% of men. Working fewer hours and accruing less experience over their careers is one of the main reasons women earn less and are under-represented in senior positions.

But how many part-time jobs could be full-time, flexible jobs? With new technology, and superfast broadband coverage to reach 97% by next year, it’s now possible to do many jobs from anywhere at any time. Remote working cuts down the commute and maximises productive time in the day.

Flexible working can also give businesses an advantage in the global competition for talent. Research by the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed found that 81% of people who work flexibly are happier and 70% say they would be reluctant to leave their current employer.

Gender diversity is good for business, too. The most gender diverse companies are 21% more likely to enjoy above-average profitability. In the UK, a 10% increase in gender diversity in a company’s senior executive team corresponds to a 3.5% increase in earnings before interest and taxes. However, women account for just 12% of executive teams in the UK.

And let’s not forget about men. Men are less likely to make a request for flexible working and more likely to have a request denied. The stigma around requesting flexible working can be even greater for men because of the old-fashioned idea that caring for children is a woman’s job. As a result, nearly half of fathers say they would consider a demotion to a less stressful job if it enabled them to spend more time with their families. That’s a huge potential loss of productivity that could be prevented if more men could work flexibly.

Making all jobs flexible by default will help close the gender pay gap, empower parents to share childcare more equally, and help businesses hang on to talented staff. By grasping the power of new technology, we can free workers from the 9 to 5 and give people choice about how they live their lives. Flexible working is the future, so the government should back my bill.

Helen Whately is Conservative MP for Faversham and Mid Kent. Her Ten Minute Rule Bill will be presented on Tuesday 16 July