A bill requiring employers to make all jobs flexible by default was introduced by Conservative deputy chairman and MP for Faversham and Mid Kent Helen Whately in Parliament on 16 July and was given approval to go to a second reading on 17 July.
Whately said that unless employers have a sound business reason for having specific working hours all jobs should be advertised as flexible.
It would help close the gender pay gap, assist parents to share childcare and help businesses retain staff, Whately explained. "The 40-hour five-day working week made sense in an era of single-earner households and stay-at-home mums, but it no longer reflects the reality of how many modern families want to live their lives," she said.
She added that a lack of flexible working reinforces gender stereotypes around work: “At the moment too many women are reluctantly dropping out of work or going part time after having children because their employers won't allow them flexibility. This entrenches the assumption that men are the breadwinners and women are the homemakers,” she said.
"As a result men don't get to spend as much time as they might like with their children, women miss out on career opportunities, and the country loses out on the contribution they could and would like to make – if only they could do slightly different hours or work some days from home."
Ella Smillie, head of policy and campaigns at the Fawcett Society, gave her backing to the bill. "We urge MPs to give Helen Whately's bill the support it deserves. Ensuring that employers offer flexible working would open up new jobs to a whole raft of people who want to work alongside carrying out caring responsibilities or simply achieving a better work/life balance,” she said.
"There are also clear benefits to employers: offering flexible working to employees creates a stronger, loyal and more diverse workforce, which pays dividends."
Patrick Thomson, senior programme manager at the Centre for Ageing Better, said that the move could also be invaluable in supporting older workers, who may find it difficult to stay in work because of health problems and caring responsibilities. “We welcome calls to consider making flexible working the default for every job. The most common reasons people leave work before state pension age include managing caring responsibilities or health conditions, and flexible working is effective in helping balance these with staying in work,” he said.
“Office for National Statistics data out today shows older workers continue to be the fastest-growing age group, so we can’t afford to wait on this. There were a quarter of a million more over-50s in work last year," he added. "But we know many people struggle with inflexible working practices that can result in them leaving work before they are ready. That’s bad for them as individuals – affecting their earnings and social connections – and bad for the UK economy as employers lose out on the skills and experience older workers can bring.
“We need to move towards flexible working being the default, and for employers to take action to support everyone to work in a way that suits them best."
Joeli Brearley, founder and director of Pregnant Then Screwed, said it's clear that flexible working is better for people and the economy: "This is good for our economy, good for business and good for humans. We know that 96% of employers already offer some form of flexible working, but only 11% of jobs state flexible working options. This means those with caring responsibilities, or other needs that require flexible working, feel unable to apply for positions that would otherwise make good use of their skills and expertise. It means we are not making the best use of our labour force and a lack of good-quality flexible working is the key cause of the gender pay gap," she said.
"I don’t think there is a single employer that would argue that flexible working isn’t good for productivity. Time and time again the research shows this, we just need a culture shift – led by the government – to encourage employers to think about how a job can be done flexibly before they recruit."