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Understanding the Day One right to request flexibility in the context of ethnicity and inclusion 

In partnership with Runnymede Trust we're gathering new insights on inequality in access to, and the experience of, flexible working.

unhappy frontline worker, cafe worker

By Dr Sarah Dauncey, Head of Partnerships and Insight, Timewise and Carol Sidney, Researcher, Runnymede Trust

The new legislation giving employees the right to request flexible working from Day One in their job – which comes into force on 6th April – is helpfully prompting action among some employers. They’re looking to get ahead and make flexible working a reality for their people. They aren’t sitting and waiting for the requests to come in but are proactively giving their employees more choice over when, where and how they work. They know this matters, both for the health and wellbeing of their workers and for the sustainability of their organisation. This work is increasingly important given evidence that some groups are less comfortable to have an informal conversation with their employer about their working pattern than others. And these groups are also more like to report that they would consider using the new rights to gain access to flexible working options.  

For instance, one of the headline findings from Timewise’s Opinium survey of 4000 workers, A Question of Time, was the significant disparity between black and white respondents over the likelihood of reporting that they would consider taking advantage of this right in a new role (71% versus 48%). Notably, Timewise also found that workers from minoritised ethnic backgrounds reported feeling less comfortable than their white counterparts to talk with their employer about their working arrangements (37% versus 28%). The attractiveness of the new rights to workers from minoritised ethnic groups to pursue greater control over when, where or how they work indicates the need for proactive interventions by employers to address racial disparities in the workplace.  

This is vital work given the evidence that some minoritised ethnic groups are more likely than white British people to report having a long-term health condition or poor health. Studies have shown that access to good quality flexible work can impact positively on health by improving people’s experience of work-life balance. Hence, granting workers from minoritised ethnic groups greater autonomy and control over their working patterns is a key mechanism to address health inequity.

Runnymede and Timewise are therefore delighted to work in partnership, supported by Impact on Urban Health, to delve deeper into the relationship between ethnicity, occupation and flexible working arrangements. How do these factors interreact and enable or disrupt the experience of inclusion and belonging in the workplace among people from minoritised ethnic groups? We’re collaborating with four employers and listening to their workers from minoritised ethnic backgrounds, along with managers and leaders of predominantly site-based teams and services, to better understand the challenges and identify possible solutions. Through our partnership, we’re empowering workers to play a part in creating more inclusive and healthier working environments and cultures.

Occupational segregation drives inequality in access to flexible working which reinforces experiences of exclusion for minoritised ethnic groups

Workers from minoritised ethnic groups are more likely to be in low-skilled insecure work with limited progression opportunities than their counterparts from white backgrounds. Occupational segregation is a feature of the UK’s labour market, with people from some ethnic groups clustered in sectors like hospitality, characterised by the high proportion of lower paid and insecure jobs that have limited access to place-based flexibility. But even in sectors where homeworking is more prevalent, recent research by Kent University and the TUC highlights the disparities in access to, and experiences of, home working by ethnicity. Their findings reinforce those of Timewise’ Opinium survey. They found that minoritised ethnic workers are less likely to feel comfortable asking for home-based options because of previous experiences of racial discrimination combined with negative attitudes towards homeworkers. ‘The flexible stigma’ – the belief that flexible workers are less productive and committed – and racism combine to intensify experiences of exclusion for minoritised ethnic groups.

What do these structural factors mean for organisations?

Structural patterns of inequality (driven by factors of health, care, education and skills) are too often reproduced within organisations of all types and sizes. Typically, people from some minoritised ethnic groups are overrepresented in low-skilled, site-based roles and functions like security, cleaning, catering and caretaking with more limited access to flexible options. Where flexible working is seen as a ‘perk’ in addition to pay, disparities are amplified. Flexible working can become a racialised issue and cause or intensify experiences of exclusion.  

In organisations that are sceptical of the benefits of flexible working, marginalised groups are more likely to conform to dominant expectations and avoid ‘rocking the boat’ by asking for adjustments to their working pattern. In organisations further along the journey to widen access to flexible options to all, regardless of job role, cultures and the mindsets of some individuals can block access. For instance, some organisations participating in the project report fewer requests for flexible working received from employees in site-based teams and services. In those services, there can be a sense among workers that flexible working just isn’t compatible with their role. ‘It’s not an option available to me’.  

For certain, change is going to involve sustained and focused action by employers. It’s going to involve empowered individuals working hard to bring people onboard and transform working cultures and practices. It will require far more than making some adjustments to HR policy. And, if progress is too slow on this agenda, it could well be that employees take up the new rights and force a culture shift to try and make work work better for them.     

How are Runnymede and Timewise working together to drive change?

We’re excited to have the opportunity to collaborate and learn from people and practices in a range of organisations to generate new insights to foster inclusive workplaces. We’ll be writing more soon to outline some of the barriers we’ve encountered, but also to showcase some of the inspiring activity that is already underway to implement flexible working more equitably and inclusively – making it the default way of working for everyone.   

Published April 2024 

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