Britain’s Flexible Working Plans Look Like a Flop

Despite all the hardship it caused, the pandemic also offered the chance of a lifetime. By proving that people could work responsibly—and often more efficiently—from home, and demonstrating how care for loved ones could exist alongside, not in opposition to, our jobs, it felt like there couldn’t possibly be a return to the Before Times. Or at least we wouldn’t be forced to go back to the office full-time. There could be a better way of working. But as the months wore on, and British politicians’ calls to “get off our Peletons” and return to offices grew louder, any hope of a flexible-working revolution in the UK has been quelled.

The latest in a bumper pack of bitter pills to swallow is the government’s consultation to make flexible working “the default.” Launched by the UK Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in late September, it invited organizations to submit views on whether and how to enhance flexible-working rights in the UK. It’s happening because the Conservative Party promised to “encourage flexible working” in its 2019 general election manifesto. Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said proposals would empower workers to “have more say over where and when they work.”

Currently, after 26 weeks of service with their employer, every employee in the UK has the right to make one flexible working request a year. Once a request has been made, if it’s rejected, the employee must wait a year before submitting a new request. The consultation aimed to change this to a right-to-request from day one, enable more than one request per year, and reduce the deadline for a response. Currently, an employer must respond within three months of receiving a request.

The consultation also proposed a reevaluation of valid reasons for rejecting a request and introduced a requirement for an employer to suggest alternatives where a request to work flexibly cannot be accommodated. All these, if embraced simultaneously by the government, could instigate wide-ranging reform in how we work. But if, as is predicted, only one new law is actually introduced—solidifying the immediate right-to-request—the consultation has been as much use as a chocolate fireguard.

As well as proposing legislative reform, the government’s Flexible Taskforce, an advisory consortium comprising business groups, trade unions, charities, and government departments, has been advising on practical and legal issues, including health and safety, remote working, equality and fairness, and performance management. The three-month window for businesses and organizations to submit their evidence closed on December 1, with the outcome likely to be published in the first half of 2022.

“We’ve seen that this commitment to ‘flexible working as the default’ is all rhetoric. There’s no substance to it whatsoever,” says Joeli Brearley, chief executive and founder of Pregnant Then Screwed. “The government will move the right to request flexible working to day one of employment because it’s the simplest thing they can do to look like they’ve fulfilled their manifesto pledge.” Despite significant contributions and evidence submitted by employees and employers, it’s the only legal amendment we can expect. As Alice Arkwright, digital projects officer at the British Trade Union Congress (TUC) points out, even that is just “tinkering around the edges of legislation that hasn’t worked.” Indeed, the Right to Request model was introduced for parents and caregivers in 2003, and in the two decades since, it has instigated meagre change. In 2013, 74 percent of employees did no flexible work, compared to 70 percent in 2020.

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