It's probably inevitable. After overcoming initial resistance to flexible working – for instance, the then mayor of London Boris Johnson describing homeworkers as 'shirkers' – studies emerged showing the benefits – lower absence rates, greater retention, higher motivation, higher job satisfaction…After so much positivity, there was a need for a new angle. Hence the backlash.
Recent studies that have won coverage can seem contradictory, though. One, from Heejung Chung at the University of Kent, talks about flexible workers doing more overtime. But while some men asked to be recompensed for that overtime, women were much less likely to, the research found. She surmised that this was because it was deemed that the women wanted flexibility due to childcare reasons and presumably were willing to trade the extra pay for flexibility.
Another, released this week, was on homeworking. It suggested that people working full time from home were no more productive than office workers – or not less productive if you look at it the other way round – after a certain amount of time when it became normalised. The researcher, Dr Esther Canonico, found that some managers complained about problems with some homeworkers not being very flexible when asked to come in for a meeting, for instance, while some homeworkers complained about having to fork out for office equipment and bills.
The researcher herself sees a lot of benefits in homeworking and says her findings on productivity only relate to full-time homeworkers. Yet the research was almost universally covered in a negative way. No pyjama party: working at home fosters bad habits, said The Times, not only stereotyping homeworkers as pyjama-wearing lazybones, but stressing the negatives in what was a nuanced piece of research. In fact Dr Canonico found that those who worked two to three days a week from home got the best of both worlds, to the benefit of both them and their employers.
Good practice and career progression
It's not just the press, though. 'Flexible working' has been used to defend employment practices which, in some cases, appear to be more like exploitation. That includes some gig-based companies that basically act as employers, expecting regular hours, while avoiding having to adhere to any employment rights. Then there are companies like Sports Direct whose name has become synonymous with the worst of zero hours practice.
It would be sad to take these examples as representative of flexible employers or flexible workers, although that does not mean we ignore the dangers at both ends of the spectrum.
Implementation of flexible working is complex and there will be some people who will abuse it – whether they are employees or employers. What is needed is an emphasis on good practice which views flexible working as a holistic change in work culture.
What is clear is that there is still a huge demand for it and a lot of inflexibility in the workforce, given the changing face of the workforce, which not only has more women in it, but also older people who are waiting longer to retire and more young people who are tech savvy and expect to work flexibly. All this diversity is beneficial to the workforce and to wider society as it creates a more inclusive workforce which reflects society better.
Although there has been a lot of talk of flexible working in the last few years and legislation opening up the right to request to all employees, a lot of that flexibility is ad hoc, what one expert calls 'inflexible flexibility'. And there is still a long way to go in terms of flexible recruitment. The Hire Me My Way campaign, backed by a number of organisations including Workingmums.co.uk, highlights how few employers choose to advertise flexible professional roles, meaning candidates are left to decide how to negotiate it. The result is that many who have flexibility in their current role stay put, with all that means for their career progression.
Given that it is women who are still more likely to look for this type of employment, although that is changing, that has big implications for diversity higher up the ranks as well as for the gender pay gap.