It’s time to make flexible working an option for all
Millions of people face the dual challenge of balancing full or part-time work with other responsibilities; flexibility in the workplace is no longer a perk.
For many, it is a lifeline - offering a much-needed pathway into the labour market and enabling those with caring responsibilities to save on prohibitive childcare costs by adjusting their working patterns.
During the pandemic millions of people benefited from flexible working. I had constituents tell me how working from home allowed them to connect more with their children. Mothers were relieved to collect their children on time from school each day. Carers, who like me were looking after a chronically unwell family member, could collect urgent medication from the pharmacy before it closed.
Flexible working has been found to foster a more diverse workforce
But for many jobs there are still invisible restrictions that hold people back – such as large living costs in city centres or maintaining working arrangements which are tough to combine with family or other responsibilities.
Flexibility is far more than hybrid working, and covers job shares, reduced or compressed hours, flexitime and phased retirement. Offering flexibility to balance work and home life can be key to ensuring participation and progression in the labour market – and to opening up employment and promotion opportunities for everyone regardless of their gender, age, disability or location.
Since the start of the pandemic, more people can work flexibly, but despite this there are some who cannot work in this way despite wanting to. Often, there is no good reason for the employer to refuse this.
For women and families, particularly those with childcare commitments, this has serious consequences. Research shows that if women can work flexibly and go back to their jobs, they are twice as likely to remain in the workforce post pregnancy. Men can work flexibly, too, and the data shows that women are twice as likely to excel in their career if their husband supports with childcare.
Younger families, single parents, and lower earners have been hardest hit financially by the pandemic and the cost of living crisis. This makes it even more important for people who require it to be able to access flexible working.
For employers too, there is a compelling business case for flexible working that has been found to foster a more diverse workforce – with improved financial returns for businesses. McKinsey found that if we fully utilise women in the UK by 2030, we will add 150 billion to our economy. Equally, workers who have more flexibility are more motivated at work and are more likely to stay with their employer.
Today, I’m introducing a Private Members Bill to the House that if passed would bring changes to the existing right to request flexible working. The right currently allows all employees with 26 weeks continuous service with their employer to make one statutory application per year to change their working hours, working pattern and/or work location.
Alongside forthcoming secondary legislation, my Bill will give employees the option to make an application to their employer to work flexibly from day one of employment. An employer could decline but they would need to have a credible business reason to do so. Employees would also be able to make two flexible working requests in a 12-month period. More importantly, the bill shifts the onus away from the employee and onto the employer to show working flexibly was not possible.
While this does not resolve all of the concerns on accessing flexible working it is a step in the right direction. It’s overarching aim is to set the right conditions for employees and employers to have open-minded conversations about what flexible working arrangements might be possible.
As we move on from the pandemic, we have an opportunity to make flexible working an option for anyone who may need it. No one should be held back in their career because of where they live, what house they can afford, or their responsibility to family. This is the right thing to do for workers, families and our economy.
Yasmin Qureshi is the Labour MP for Bolton South East.
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