Interviews

Flexible working: Agreeing to disagree

Peter Crush , 23 Feb 2009

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Sarah Jackson, CEO of Working Families, believes the case for flexible working remains the same regardless of the current economic climate; it's a view not wholly shared by Katja Hall, director of employment policy, CBI.

SARAH JACKSON, CEO, Working Families

Q: Working Families promotes combining family and working life. How did you feel when Lord Mandelson proposed suspending extending the right to request flexible working to employees with children up to the age of 16?

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A: It was profoundly depressing. The notion that employee rights and flexibility are acceptable only in good times continues to cast flexible working as a soft issue. It was particularly depressing given the Government's own calculations concluded flexible working was a benefit, not a cost to industry. It failed to have the courage of its own convictions. When the announcement was made, the business lobbies - the CBI and the Chambers of Commerce - all jumped around in glee.

Q: Government did a U-turn, and the extension will go ahead as planned next month, but do you think the issue been muddied?

A: Yes. The problem is business now thinks it 'has' to do it. Because it feel it's being told by the Government, it thinks it's bad for them - flexibility has become a 'five-a-day' for businesses that don't like their greens. We feel flexibility needs to go far beyond compliance and become something that's as vital to plan in a business as, say, budgets.

Q: Do you have sympathy with businesses who feel flexibility in the current climate will just be too difficult?

A: Not really. I accept change is hard, but I honestly think business is turning its back on something that would make its life easier. My problem is that it is actually still too easy for them to say no to flexible working. Employers have a responsibility to listen when they get reasonable requests. It's employers without clear HR support who panic and believe they automatically have to say yes to a flexible working request.

Q: Where do you think the answer lies in making flexible working something we don't have to debate any more?

A: It's certainly not with the tribunals system. Here legislation is at its weakest. A tribunal can't test the reason a company says no to a request, only that it has gone through all the right procedures in making that decision. We'd much prefer a 'no' to be used as an opportunity for better employee relations if it's been done properly, and there genuinely isn't a reason to say yes' Groups like the CBI are happy with flexible working per se, but they don't want legislation. My greatest sorrow about all this is that flexible working has the potential to be the most simple, lightest touch piece of legislation there is. It's a shame the CBI feels the need to fight it.

Q: When will a universal right to request flexible working happen - surely your next big project?

A: The real barrier is that flexible working still has a 'women's' label attached to it. More women request it, and more work flexibly as a result, so you get into a position where an employer will think that if they hire a woman, she will want to ask for flexible working. The problem is, that until we change the working culture, families will suffer. We argue that both families and business can have a win-win situation."

KATJA HALL, Director of employment policy, CBI

Q: There's a perception the CBI is anti- flexible working. Is this true?

A: We're actually in favour of it and we see it as something that business has taken on board. Our Employment Trends Survey 2008 shows all employers offer at least one form of it and two-thirds offer three forms of it. Our members strongly support it.

Q: But didn't the CBI support the Government when it planned to halt extending the right to request flexible working to those with children up to the age of 16?

A: We accepted Imelda Walsh's flexible working review and the right of carers to request flexible working, as well as proposals to extend the right to those with children up to 16. But we feel the latter should have waited till October - to give business more time to adapt - and our view is also that employers should have the right to say no. In addition, we decided that a recession was not the best time to impose yet more costly regulation on business.

Q: Surely if you support flexible working per se, it's a good idea any time, not just when the economy is doing well?

A: When businesses are in a survival period, do we really want other issues that management has to get up to speed on to get in the way? We know smaller businesses will struggle to cope with the regulation when it becomes comes law in April. For this reason we don't think we're being inconsistent. While we expect most line managers to sit down and have conversations with staff who request flexible working, we think some managers may think they are under pressure to say yes which is not a good position to put them in.

Q: So flexible working is bad, is it?

A: No, I work a four-day week, and I look after my children on the fifth day. That's not what the CBI is saying. We are saying managers will not be able to get up to speed in time for the changes.

Q: Does this mean you do not think the right to request flexible working should be extended even further, and made universal then?

A: Yes. The point is, many businesses are already offering flexible working. But we do not feel all employees should have the legal right to ask for it

Q: Really? Why?

A: It's about the purpose of laws. Laws should be about setting minimum standards, not best practice. We think best practice already happens without it having to be enforced legally.

Q: So how can one person have the CBI's support for requesting flexible working, while another (whose claim might be just as valid) can't?

A: It's about giving employers the ability to prioritise. Take, for example, a carer and someone else who just wants to develop a hobby. The carer's request for a flexible working solution should take precedent. If you're a small business, it's not practicable for everyone to work flexibly, so you need to be able to make priorities between those who genuinely need flexible working and those who do not. A law giving everyone the right would not allow organisations to prioritise and manage their business.

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