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Proactive approaches to discussing flexible working

Timewise has polled the Chartered Management Institute’s line manager members to explore approaches to flexible working. This is the first ever poll of its kind to examine how many managers proactively raise the possibility of flexible working with their reports, rather than merely responding to requests.

Flexible working strategy, for most organisations, still relies on a ‘request-response’ model. That is: an employee makes a request to work part-time or flexibly, and the line manager or HR department responds to that.

It’s a model that Timewise would like to see replaced with a systemic proactive approach. The request-response model is to blame for much of the stigma around flexible working (especially part-time arrangements). This is because it pigeon-holes flexibility as something that’s considered only in special circumstances, predominantly associated with women and childcare.

A proactive approach from managers, by contrast, would make flexibility a gender-neutral matter. It would benefit large numbers of employees (87% want to work flexibly). It would open up flexible career pathways for those already working flexibly. And it would create fairer workplaces, as flexible working is associated with increased diversity and inclusion.

In this research of just under 900 line managers, Timewise with the CMI set out to understand the extent to which proactive approaches are currently being made by line managers.

Key findings

Line managers proactively offering flexible working

1 in 5 surveyed managers (21%) had ever proactively offered flexible working at annual review or PDR. A similar proportion (1 in 5, or 19%) had ever offered it when recruiting. And only 1 in 20 (5%) had offered it at the point of promotion.

Timewise considers these to be low proportions, given that the wording of the questions was “Have you ever proactively offered….” To answer positively, a manager may have offered flexible working to only one of their current direct reports, since the introduction of flexible working policies. Additionally, CMI members are more likely than most managers to follow good practice around flexible working; by their nature they take a relatively formal, professional approach to management.

Timewise would like to see significant improvement in proactive discussion of flexible working at these key times. They are moments when career opportunity is under discussion, and when an open approach would be more inclusive of people who need to work flexibly.

“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.” Niamh Mulholland, Director of External Affairs, CMI

Responding to changes in employees’ personal circumstances

Just over half of surveyed managers (53%) had proactively offered flexible working because of an employee’s personal situation. This is very much higher than proactivity at key points in career development.

However, while being sympathetic to personal matters is an improvement on waiting for the employee to make a formal request, this finding still positions flexible working as a personal matter.

Overall instances of proactively offering flexible working

Overall, two thirds (66%) of line managers had ever proactively offered flexible working on at least one occasion (whether following a change in personal circumstances, or at a formal career review or progression point).

Female managers (76%) were more likely than male managers (62%) to be proactive around flexible working. This may possibly be related to association of part-time work with returning from maternity leave – perhaps female managers feel more comfortable about discussing this.


Timewise believes that employers would benefit by developing proactive strategies for flexible working. Making flexibility a normal part of the discussion, at key points in career development, would help break down gender stereotyping. This would have a beneficial knock-on effect on problems such as the gender pay gap and inclusion. It could also improve loyalty and motivation, retention, and employee well-being.

Timewise recommends that:

  • Line managers should initiate the discussion about whether an employee would prefer to work flexibly in some way. This should be a systemic part of the process – at recruitment, annual review and when looking at promotion opportunities.
  • Organisations need to provide training and support for line managers to adapt to and then manage the process. The line managers would need to be up-skilled in job design, to make sure that any flexible arrangements will work for the role and the business, as well as for the employee.   

Note on methods: CMI surveyed 879 of its UK practising members, who had direct reports, between 25th April and 3rd June 2019 on the use of flexible working legislation in the workplace.

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