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Will the government’s new flexible working rights make a difference?

Sector-wide action is required to ensure that new flexible working legislation leads to real improvements in work-life balance for frontline staff.

As of 6th April, employers will be legally required to consider requests to work flexibly from day one of employment – effectively extending current flexible working rights from existing to new staff.

The new legislation is just one of a series of measures on the horizon seeking to improve the control workers have over the hours they work. Later this year people working irregular hours will gain a new right to request predictable working patterns. And if Labour wins the next election, the party have pledged to convert these ‘rights to request’ into default rights for all workers and end the use of zero-hours contracts, among other measures.

If successful, these measures could help reduce the well-documented gap between the high number of people seeking to work flexibly, and the limited number of high quality, part-time and flexible jobs in the economy. They could help achieve wider goals such as boosting employment rates, and helping parents, older people and those with health conditions and disabilities to participate in work.

But these potential benefits will only be realised if the new legislative framework leads to meaningful improvements in staff input and control over their working patterns.

In advance of the new legislation ‘Day One Flex’ legislation coming into effect soon, Timewise is conducting interviews with employers in construction, transport and logistics, retail and health and social care. Our findings so far suggest that, without further action, this legislation will make little difference to staff in the frontline sectors and roles where most low-to-middle income earners work.

Each of these sectors faces genuine complexities when it comes to scheduling – from the need to provide the right capacity and skills to ensure safety on hospital wards and construction sites, to the operational challenges associated with responding to fluctuations in demand in retail, transport and social care. But there are also entrenched cultural patterns that have prioritised employers’ needs for flexibility over those of staff. Cost control measures in these sectors focus primarily on controlling staff costs, rather than the operational efficiencies and improvements that can come from a motivated, well-trained and engaged workforce.

Those we are speaking to argued that greater awareness & understanding of the legislation would be needed for genuine improvements in access to flexible work.

Without this, few of those we are interviewing think the new right to request flexible working would have a significant impact on employers not already engaged in these issues. Interviewees cite the relatively low numbers of formal requests they currently receive, and the ability to reject requests on a broad range of business needs, whether for new or existing staff.

Employers highlight the wider structural constraints they have little control over. In construction, for example, cost and staff assumptions are usually set by developers in the tender phase. These organisations are several steps removed from the sub-contractors that have to deliver site-based works with the minimum number of staff and little room for the inevitable delays.

Similarly, acute budget constraints and staff shortages in the NHS and social care mean there is little ‘slack’ in the system, making it harder for managers to enable staff to request or change their working patterns.

Yet the research is also starting to show that this situation is not inevitable.

In all these sectors there are employers that are bucking the trend, often driven by difficulties recruiting or retaining good staff, as well as a real commitment to staff wellbeing. Some retailers we are speaking to are choosing to offer regular, stable shifts, provided well in advance. One construction company has created two teams on each project to enable compressed hours and the option to start or finish early, while still providing the supervision and skills required to operate safely and tackle any problems.

The most transformative approaches are seeking to organise work and schedules in ways that enable ‘Shift-Life Balance’, providing greater input, advance notice and stability for all staff and teams. This is in contrast to case-by-case approaches to flexible working arrangements, which employers feel could lead to unfairness and inconsistency, and limit the overall scope for shift-life balance. This view is supported by pilots Timewise has conducted with employers in nursing, construction and social care to test team-based rostering, where staff collectively set schedules through a participatory forum. Employers saw significant improvements in staff engagement, recruitment and retention as a result.

The challenge is how to get beyond good practice examples and embed these approaches across frontline roles and sectors.

The research is suggesting that this will require sector-wide interventions to ensure all parts of the system coordinate to enable more flexible working. And it needs training and support to build the capacity and knowledge for change among employers, particularly smaller employers. If we can achieve this, it could not only help tackle some of our biggest national social and economic challenges, but also significantly improve quality of life for millions of workers.

Published March 2024

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