· Features

COVID-19 isn’t enough to propel the flexible working agenda forward

That the onset of the current pandemic has pushed the flexible working agenda centre stage is undeniable. Many, many more people have been supported by their employer to work remotely, and those working remotely have in many cases been supported to flex their hours, particularly parents affected by schools and childcare settings closing.

When we surveyed parents in the summer, 84% said they were working flexibly, compared to 65% at the beginning of the year.

But if you stop and think about it, is it really that flexible working has been more accessible for all? Or is it that some workers have been able to work from home and, where that’s possible, to flex their hours around childcare and home-schooling?

The Resolution Foundation’s research during lockdown showed over four in five top earners were working from home some or all of the time, compared with less than half in lower pay.

Being really cynical, isn’t the increased flexibility we’ve seen during COVID-19 simply more access to home working for higher earners in more senior roles?

Parents working in sectors like hospitality and retail haven’t been able to work from home, and were very often unable to go to work at all when schools and childcare settings closed.

Those on a ‘pay-as-you-go’ type contract have been most acutely affected – many will simply have been let go. They just haven’t had the job security and access to genuinely two-way flexibility they’ve needed to keep their working and caring-for-their-children show on the road.

So, the benefits of job security, combined with genuinely two-way flexible working that has helped some parents carry on, are still being unevenly felt. And unevenly felt among employers.

Working Families’ employer members have been quick to recognise and respond to the emerging situation and rapidly expand remote-working and supporting their workforce to flex their hours.

They reported that productivity had been the same as usual or better than usual during lockdown. At the same time, we’ve heard from parents struggling to do their jobs at all due to inflexible employer practices.

So, what needs to happen? The good news is the government has committed to making flexible working the default unless employers have good reason not to.

Our new report Flexistability: Building back better for the UK’s working parents calls for legislation creating a duty on employers to advertise vacancies flexibly. This helps parents and carers who have lost their jobs back into work and, crucially, unlocks the different types of flexibility in all roles, helping to ensure the pandemic’s flexible working legacy isn’t simply more working from home only for those that can.

This must be combined with action to tackle job insecurity. COVID-19 has brutally exposed how inadequate ‘pay-as-you-go’ jobs are at safe-guarding incomes.

The use of zero-hours contracts and bogus self-employment – a modus operandi for too many UK employers – risks completely undermining any legislative efforts around flexible working, guaranteeing an ongoing divide between the UK’s flexible working ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.

People’s incomes are predicated on their being in employment and, as the current pandemic has shown, people’s jobs must be future-proofed so that if something goes wrong – say a global pandemic that necessitates schools and childcare settings closing – people can stay in work. A labour market that isn’t built on ‘flexistability’ – job security and genuinely two-way flexibility – is a labour market built on sand.

Julia Waltham, joint head of policy and influencing, Working Families.

Further reading:

How HR can support working parents

Working Families names companies providing best flexibility for parents and carers

Five reasons to prioritise family-friendly policies