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The impact of extending the right to request flexible working

HR magazine asked if the extension of the right to request flexible working to all parents of children aged 16 or under would lead to an increase in the number of requests in your organisation: 40% of you said yes; 60% said no

I am convinced that extending the right to request flexible working arrangements to all parents with children 16 or under will not increase these requests. The main reason for this is ‘the recession'.  Indeed, I suspect that the number of requests overall will go down, even for those with children under six, as people are feeling more insecure and worried that if they make such a request, they will be perceived as being less committed-which might make them more vulnerable in the next tranche of redundancies. The ‘insecurity driver' of behaviour in the workplace is a powerful motivator. I am really concerned about this because the evidence to date is that when people choose to work flexibly and are allowed to with the support of their organisation, it leads to greater job satisfaction, less perceived workplace stress and to enhanced performance (although the latter needs more research evidence). With two out of every three couples being two-earner families, with advanced ICT technologies and with our economy now substantially service-based, employers are losing an important competitive advantage if they discourage or instinctively turn away from supporting flexible working. Indeed, in the recent government Foresight programme on Mental Capital and Wellbeing (www.foresight.gov.uk) it was recommended that the right to request should be open to all in the workplace, whether they have children or not. The cost-benefit analysis indicated a substantial positive ratio if this request was open to all, given the multiple demands on people in their work and private lives (commuting, eldercare, maintaining family relationships, etc.).  By the way, let's remember, this is only ‘the right to request' not the right itself. Is it really unreasonable for an employer to have to respond rationally to a request of this sort?  Most employees will appreciate a rational and considered negative response, knowing full well they have to have a good personal business case to work flexibly - that is, that they can do their job at least as well as they can when working traditional office hours.

Cary Cooper, CBE, is professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School, and chair of The Sunningdale Institute in the National School of Government