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Should employers be made to consider flexible recruitment? Yes, but…

While we welcome government proposals to encourage employers to take action on flexible recruitment, legislation alone will not be enough.

flexible recruitment
Businessman having an interview with colleague at office

You might think that we would welcome the proposals on flexible recruitment in the government’s Good Work Plan with open arms. Surely, as champions of flexible working, we would be delighted by the concept of requiring all employers to clarify whether a role they’re advertising is flexible? Well yes, but… there’s a bit more to it than that.

It’s certainly true that Timewise has led the campaign for flexible recruitment that has got us to this point. We’ve been tracking the flexible jobs market for the last five years with our annual Flexible Jobs Index. And we were the first to flag up that the supply of flexibly advertised roles (currently just 15%) lags way behind the massive demand for such roles (which our research has put at 87%).

So of course, we would be delighted if more employers would consider making their roles flexible, and then advertise them as such. But should they be legally required to do so? Our answer is: not yet, and not without proper support in place. Here’s why we hold this view, and what we recommend instead.

Without guidance for employers, we risk ‘flexwashing’

We have always been clear that any legislation around flexible recruitment should benefit candidates and widen the flexible jobs market. But legally requiring employers to consider making a role flexible could have unintended consequences that would have a negative impact on both.

Firstly, there’s a danger that legislation without support will simply lead to ‘flexwashing’, by which I mean employers advertising a role as flexible without making any changes to it. And that just won’t work. You can’t just dish out a laptop and leave staff to get on with working remotely, or chop a day off the working week and expect the same outputs.

So managers and HR will need support and training in how to design flexible roles; otherwise, they’ll do it badly. This is true for all roles, but particularly acute when it comes to front line low-margin sectors. In these, it is much more complex to create good flexible jobs that give workers more control and predictability over how they work.

And secondly, there’s a concern that employers who aren’t really on board will advertise a role as having flexibility, because they feel they have to, and then mysteriously fail to shortlist any candidates who they think might want it. That’s bad news all round, but particularly for groups such as parents, carers or people with a medical condition, for whom flexibility can be the difference between working and not.

Here’s what needs to happen instead

But look: this isn’t just a moan, and we’re not against the principles that the government is working towards. On the contrary, I’ve been pushing for a programme to support the development of good flexible work in my role on the government’s Flexible Working Taskforce.

Our ultimate goal at Timewise is to help create a buoyant jobs market for the millions of people who want and need to work flexibly. And we know, based on our 15 years’ experience in this area, that will take time and thought to get right. So here are the steps we believe should be taken to make this proposed legislation a success:

  • Start with a voluntary approach in which employers are encouraged, not legally required, to think about how to make their roles more flexible, and to say so when recruiting. This should be reviewed after three years at which point, if it isn’t having a marked impact, it may need to be made compulsory.
  • Back up the initial approach with a centrally funded programme of guidance, practical support and workplace trialsto help employers to test how to design flexible roles. This could potentially be funded through the Industrial Strategy. The government invests in tech innovation to catalyse business growth; if we are going to fundamentally change the way we work, we need to start investing in job design innovation too.
  • Ask employers to track their progress on flexible working, as part of their gender pay gap action plans. Many of our partner organisations are doing so already, recognising the link between unlocking more senior roles to flexibility and driving gender balance.

I believe all three of these elements have an equally important part to play in stimulating a fairer flexible jobs market. Yes, legislation is important, but changing workplace law won’t change workplace culture by itself.

To achieve real progress, businesses also need to be helped to understand how to equip managers with the skills they need. And they need to make the sustainable, structural changes that we know will support genuine flexible recruitment. That means our government – whichever it may be – incentivising and supporting businesses to do their bit.

It’s important to remember that this isn’t a quick fix; as the Scandinavian countries’ experiences have shown, it takes many years to create a truly flexible market. And it only happened because their governments were prepared to fund programmes to improve business performance and the quality of flexible roles, as well as prioritising and investing in family-friendly working practices.

So please, let’s do it properly. Step by step. Because if we are successful at creating real culture change, we will have a truly flexible jobs market. One in which employers are not just advertising job vacancies as flexible, but actually hiring quality candidates into well-designed flexible roles. If you’d like some help getting started, you know who to ask.

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