The establishment in the early 20th century of the eight hours a day, five days a week working rhythm that is now ingrained in our society is often credited to Henry Ford of Ford Motor Company. In fact, labour unions had been pushing for shorter shifts long before Mr Ford introduced them but the reduced schedule proved good for business: workers were more productive and, because they were no longer putting in upwards of 100 hours a week, they stopped dying of exhaustion.
Nearly a century later, this rigid nine-to-five working pattern no longer reflects the way we want (and need) to work. Childcare arrangements, disability and access to mental health appointments during the day are just a few of the myriad reasons why we need flexible working and, as 2020 has shown, can and should be totally possible.
MP Helen Whately understands this. In 2019, Whately proposed a bill that would have made it law for all jobs to be advertised as 'flexible' by default, unless a valid reason could be provided otherwise. Employers, she proposed, would outline in what way the role was flexible, be it part-time, 'flexitime', remote working or compressed hours (when an employee works full-time hours over fewer days). This new working model would help narrow the gender pay gap, enable parents to divide childcare and companies to retain happy and productive staff.
Although the bill never made it through parliament, the pressure is firmly on companies to offer flexible working for everyone – and soon. While we are legally entitled to request a flexible working arrangement after 26 weeks of employment, Flex For All, a coalition of campaign groups including Pregnant Then Screwed, is lobbying for employees to have this right from day one.
Yet while an increasing number of companies are offering flexibility in the workplace (LinkedIn's latest Global Talent Trends report shows that there has been a 78% increase in jobs mentioning 'workplace flexibility' since 2016), others are merely paying it lip service. Dubbed 'fake flex' by those on the receiving end, some companies are guilty of offering flexibility in theory but not in practice. Despite the working from home (if you can) order, this still continues now.
In 2017, IBM scrapped its work-from-home initiative, having announced in 2009 that 40% of its employees worked remotely. In a leaked email in September last year, Publicis Groupe agency Starcom wrote to staff to say that unless they started coming into the office on Fridays, they would revoke the flexible working policy which had been introduced just six months previously.
"I worked for an agency who agreed to me working flexibly to allow me to pick my stepson up from school but then behaved like I was working less than everyone else (when in fact I came in early and took shorter lunches to make up the time)," one woman told me via Twitter. Meetings would be arranged for when she needed to leave, or the owner of the business would turn up to speak to her shortly before she was due to collect her stepson. She was ultimately made redundant from her role when she became pregnant.
"I work in a British university that offers [flexibility] 'officially'," wrote another. "Unofficially managers (almost unanimously male in my institution) make it very difficult to take up." She added that her days and hours are often changed shortly before the beginning of every new semester, making childcare incredibly difficult to arrange. What’s more, "events that could impact career progression are planned outside of school hours and evenings and weekends."
According to Pregnant Then Screwed founder Joeli Brearley, being sidelined for promotion is a common side effect of working flexibly. "Many employers agree to flexible working but don’t implement it properly," says Joeli, who notes that many companies still value presenteeism over productivity. "They give very little thought to how to reduce your workload if you are working fewer days. I’ve heard from countless women who end up doing exactly the same job they were doing five days a week but trying to shoehorn it into four days, which means taking work home with them and a continuous, overwhelming feeling of panic. Yet they are being paid less for the privilege and are far less likely to ever progress."
The tightrope of working motherhood means that you often feel guilty for leaving your child, only to be faced with more guilt for working flexibly – and that’s if you’re lucky. According to the Trades Union Congress, one in three requests for flexible working are turned down (legally, employers are able to refuse such requests if they can provide a legitimate business reason for doing so). The same survey found that flexible working is unavailable to 58% of workers, rising to 64% in professions deemed 'working class'.
But flexible working isn’t just for women with children – it’s for everyone who wants or needs it. Millennials and Generation Z are expected to make up 75% of the UK workforce by 2030 and they view flexibility as a necessity, not a perk. This means that employers will need to break the nine-to-five mould in order to attract and retain the best talent. How can those of us looking for jobs ensure that a company’s flexible working policy is fair to employees?
Ask about it during the interview stage and monitor the response, advises Nikki Thomas, a career coach. "Companies that offer real flexible working are proud to demonstrate it," she says. "The working world is changing and interviewing is a two-way street. Make sure you ask about the company, the culture, the flexibility. This gives you the opportunity to know what you are walking into before you accept a new role."
If you’re already employed and your flexible working arrangement isn’t working for you, speak with your line manager, says HR consultant Kelly Bater. "The manager may not actually be aware that the flexible working arrangement is not working. If it turns out that they are well aware, then there are various routes to take." Perhaps the workload means that flexible working is not the right fit for the role and a job share is the answer, or a revision of the arrangements and/or the role may be possible, says Kelly, who advises that any informal flexible working arrangements should be put in writing by the company. "There are lots of options available. If all else fails, every company must have a grievance procedure. Do not be afraid to follow this."