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Why employees shouldn’t have to request flexible working

Our new research, in which we polled manager members of the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), shows that only 1 in 5 line managers have proactively offered flexibility at a formal review. Here’s why it’s better for everyone when employees don’t have to ask.

There’s an increasing amount of data around flexible working, including our revelations that only 1 in 4 job ads offer it despite nearly 9 in 10 employees wanting it. But something we haven’t known is whether employees generally have to request flexible working, or are proactively offered it.

So we worked with CMI, and polled 879 managers, and here’s what we’ve learned. Only 1 in 5 line managers have ever offered flexible working at an annual review or performance review, ever. Even worse, only 1 in 20 have proactively suggested it at least once at the point of promotion.

Does this matter? Well, yes. And not just for employees either.

The problem with employees having to ask

Historically, there has been a stigma attached to working flexibly, and particularly part-time, as something that is only really valid for women with children. And while attitudes are changing, the ‘request-response’ model is slowing progress down. It creates a sense that flexible working is something that requires specific circumstances, rather than being open to all.

If it were proactively offered to everyone, flexible working would become more widespread and, critically, more gender-neutral. It would be more acceptable to work flexibly for non-childcare reasons, increasing take-up by non-parents, and opening up more flexible career pathways. Over time, this would help employers achieve a healthier, happier, more productive and more inclusive workforce.

What employers can do to turn things around

If you think this is something you could improve, the solution is relatively straightforward. You need to build a proactive strategy which encourages your line managers to discuss flexible preferences at key career development points. For example, your framework for annual appraisals or performance reviews could include a requirement for managers to ask team members if they are happy with their working pattern, and make it clear that they are willing to discuss flexible alternatives.

But of course, strategy isn’t enough. As Niamh Mulholland, the CMI’s Director of External Affairs says: “We know that there is often a gap between flexible working policy and practice. The key to closing that gap is really good line management – which means ensuring line managers are properly equipped to help staff work flexibly, and empowered to champion flexible working and call out bad practice.”

So you’ll also need to offer training for your line managers to help make sure they’re implementing your strategy in the right way. This would involve teaching them how to discuss flexible working and upskilling them in job design, so that any arrangements that are agreed work for the business as well as the individual.

And yes, this will require an initial investment of time and training budgets. But as we’ve shown, the impact of flexible working on headline issues such as employee well-being and the gender pay gap will ensure that it is worthwhile. If you need any support, we’re here to help.

Published December 2019

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