We must create and advertise more flexible roles

More widespread and embedded flexible working practices will help solve key challenges for employers

During National Work Life Week in October, the UK government made headlines with its plans to ban restaurant owners from deducting money from tips earned by staff. This decision was one of a series of new measures announced by business secretary Greg Clark to support employers and employees, as well as the government’s flagship Industrial Strategy.

I would like to touch on one of these measures that did not receive as much media attention, but could have a major impact on working people across the UK: Clark’s surprise announcement that the government will consider creating a duty for employers to consider whether a job can be done flexibly, and make that clear when advertising the role.

Currently the proportion of quality, permanent, flexible and part-time jobs in the UK is in the very low teens and creeping up by only a few percentage points each year. This can lead to parents and carers – very often women – being unable to enter or re-enter the labour market or feeling unable to change jobs because of the flexibility they have ‘accrued’ that they wouldn’t get elsewhere.

Research we published earlier this year found that more than one in 10 working parents have refused a new job and/or said no to a promotion because of concerns about work/life balance. What’s most interesting is that these figures are the same for fathers and mothers. While the gender pay gap is evidence that women’s earnings are clearly affected by motherhood, we have begun highlighting evidence of a ‘parenthood penalty’ with fathers and mothers unable to fulfil their potential at work and move nimbly in the labour market, simply because they have become parents.

Legislating around flexible recruitment would give the UK labour market the boost it needs in terms of the number of high-quality, permanent, flexible and part-time jobs. It would unlock flexibility across better-quality permanent roles and help address the ‘parenthood penalty’ that holds so many parents back. As a result, many parents – especially mothers – would have wider options than just low-paid, part-time, and often insecure work.

What the government is proposing isn’t pie in the sky: it can be done. Working Families works with employers interested in leveraging flexible working to increase organisational performance. Among those that took part in our 2018 Top Employers for Working Families Benchmark, managers are increasingly required to justify the need for a job to be nine to five, five days a week as the default.

But it’s very important to remember that flexible working on its own won’t deliver work/life balance for working parents. Our latest research shows that parents – including those who work flexibly – are working far beyond their contracted hours despite evidence it’s counterproductive. These long hours are causing damage by intruding on time spent together as a family, on parental relationships and on wellbeing.

Potential legislation around flexible recruitment should, therefore, ensure that employers properly consider job design. Employers must evaluate what tasks the role requires and how these tasks can be completed in the allocated hours before determining what kind of flexible working is possible. Encouraging this approach will help unlock more part-time and genuinely flexible ‘human-sized’ jobs. Again, it can be done. Most Working Families members that took part in our benchmark are already assessing roles for their potential for flexibility.

Our 'Happy to Talk Flexible Working' strapline and logo were highlighted in Matthew Taylor’s 2017 review into modern employment practice, as tools for employers to recruit for more flexible and ‘human-sized’ jobs. More than a third of Working Families members that took part in our benchmark routinely state the opportunities for flexibility in their job adverts, often using 'Happy to Talk Flexible Working'. Having been co-created with the government I hope the logo and strapline – and their accompanying ethos – will be a focus going forward.

More widespread and embedded flexible working is integral to the long-term success of other government initiatives; closing the gender pay gap being an obvious example. Another is Shared Parental Leave, which will surely only succeed in the long term if there are flexible roles for fathers and mothers to return to and move into after time spent with their babies. Under Universal Credit parents can only move into and progress in work if there are quality, permanent, flexible and part-time jobs for them.

Additionally, more widespread and embedded flexible working will help solve key challenges for employers around recruitment and retention, developing a skilled workforce, and productivity – bringing benefits to the UK economy. I can’t think of another measure the government could introduce that would have as many positive knock-on effects as this.

Legislation around flexible recruitment is exactly the kind of bold and progressive thinking that working parents and carers desperately need. We were delighted when Clark announced that the government is considering it and we look forward to working with him on the details of the policy going forward.

Jane van Zyl is chief executive of Working Families