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Soon, millions will be to be able to request flexible working from day one of a new job. It's a good start – but more support for employers is needed.
By Nicola Smith, Director of Development and Innovation
The government consultation into ‘Making flexible working the default’, launched in September 2021, was widely welcomed. Today, the government has confirmed that it will be taking action in response, finally concluding that the right to request flexible work should be a day one right for all employees.
This is an important success for all of us who have made the case for a fairer, stronger jobs market – and is also a ‘win-win’ for employers and their (current and potential) workforces.
Along with government support for Yasmin Qureshi MP’s Private Member’s Bill (the means by which much new legislation will be introduced), today’s announcement means important new flexible working rights are coming. Alongside day one rights to request flexible work, wider positive changes that will now be introduced include:
We don’t yet know when these changes will take effect, but with committee stage on the bill taking place later this week, new legislation could hit the statute book in early 2023. In practice, these new requirements could be in place by as early as next Autumn.
Giving employees the right to ask for a flexible role from the moment they join an organisation – rather than waiting 26 weeks – is certainly a step forward. And in today’s tight labour market, it makes real business sense. With four people currently chasing every part-time job, there’s no doubt that the demand is there; if ever there was a time to advertise flex at the point of hire, it’s right now.
But we believe there is still much more to do to properly widen access to flexible working from day one. Why? Because this arrangement still puts all the onus on the employee to ask.
Our 2022 Flexible Jobs Index© shows that only 30% of jobs are advertised with any flexible working options, and research also shows that this stops people who need flex from ever applying. And when candidates do ask, employers have often not thought about what might be possible, and aren’t equipped to respond. As a result, all those people who need flex to fit work around their wider lives lose out – and employers can’t get the candidates they need.
So although we’re hopeful that the day one right to request will increase the number of employers advertising roles flexibly, we doubt it will fully deliver the step change in hiring practice and job design that our economy desperately needs.
The government could have taken this opportunity to take things a step further.
We think employers should be required to consider whether a job can be made flexible, and if they feel it can’t, to explain why not. And critically, if it can be done flexibly, employers should be required to state the flexibility on offer up front in the recruitment process.
How else will applicants know when they apply for work whether they will actually be able to do the job? We believe few people would feel comfortable accepting a new position and then a few weeks later, bringing up the need for a new working pattern on day one.
Of course not every role can offer flex in where, when or how a job is done – but as our Innovation Unit pilots continue to show, far more is possible across so many roles.
At Timewise, we also know that legislative change alone is not enough. We continue to call on government to provide a package of support for employers, to help them create and implement flexible jobs and behaviours, to sit alongside this new legislation.
This needs to include training managers in how to design flexible jobs, and manage flexible teams. And in some sectors, in which flexibility is more complex to achieve, it should involve supporting them to test and pilot different approaches.
If this support becomes available, employers will be able to get to a position where fully considering whether a job can be made flexible, and what options are the most suitable, happens before the recruitment process. Where hiring managers proactively think this through. And where doing so is seen as an opportunity to attract the best talent, rather than a problem to be solved.
More work also needs to be done to help those who engage and bargain with employers – for example Jobcentre Plus and welfare to work providers, recruiters and trade unions – to act as change agents for better flexible work.
In Scotland, we’ve worked with labour market intermediaries to improve access to fair flexible work; we now need to see widespread action like this across the UK. There is huge potential for DWP and its provider network to do more in this space – with employers struggling to fill full-time vacancies and so many potential applicants in need of flexible work, action here must be a priority.
Our previous work with DWP has shown that specialist support for job brokerage teams works to get people who are out of work into better paying flexible jobs. We’ve recently been working with Restart providers, supporting them to work with employers to identify opportunities for more flexible jobs, and can see how much potential there is to do more.
It’s also worth taking a moment to remember that those who won’t benefit at all from the right to request are people who don’t have an employee contract. The Living Wage Campaign’s Living Hours ask speaks to this challenge – calling on employers to make sure that their entire workforces have decent notices of shifts and a basic guaranteed minimum of hours.
The fact that exclusivity clauses will be banned for the lowest paid is a positive move, but doesn’t go far enough to give people the security over hours that’s needed. Wider changes in employer practice and legislation remain necessary here, to make sure that our jobs market has more of the good flex that employers and employees urgently need, and less of the extreme low-wage insecure work that is bad for everyone.
Today’s announcement is an important and exciting step forward in acknowledging how widespread the need for good flexibility is – whether that is in how, where or when people work. It opens the door to a real shift in access to good flexible jobs. But we know that this legislation is only the first stage. Employers now need support to design flexible jobs fairly and consistently across their workforces, and ultimately we need to ensure good flexibility is on offer from the point a job advert is posted.
Published December 2022