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Inflexible attitudes over flexible working

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Despite all the government’s attempts to encourage flexible working, the majority of employees fear that asking for more flexible working practices will damage their careers.

At the moment only parents with children have the right to ask for flexible working but research by business communications provider Inter-Tel has found that 90 per cent of all employees think that flexible working should apply to everyone, irrespective of their domestic or parenting situation.

But nearly 60 per cent thought that for those without children asking for flexible working would be a career-damaging move. Many believed that requesting a more flexible work/life balance could be interpreted as being a “poor team player or too laid back”.

Trust was also perceived to be an issue and a barrier to making requests to work from home, with 40 per cent saying they did not think their employer would trust them to work at home as they would in an office environment.

Publication of the research coincided with a speech by Jim Fitzpatrick MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Employment Relations and Postal Services at a Fabian Society seminar.

“Giving staff more control and choice over the hours they work and how they deliver their work, leads to a greater sense of wellbeing and reduced sickness absence,” he said.

“Companies that offer family friendly policies are more likely to see parents return to work after having children and for every member of staff that returns, time and money are saved.

“For BT, for example, the availability of flexible working arrangements has resulted in improved retention, with 99 per cent of women returning to the company after maternity leave, saving about £5m in recruitment and induction costs.”

There are other benefits too: in 2001 BT estimates that its flexible working policies reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 54,000 tonnes, and conserved 12 million litres of car fuel.

At the moment, the legal right to flexible working is confined to the right to ask for a change in the employment contract. The right is restricted to parents of children under six unless the child is disabled, in which case the age limit is 18.

The right can be found in Part 8A of the Employment Rights Act 1996. The types of request that can be made are:

  • A change to the hours worked (ie a reduction in hours and therefore in pay)

  • A change to the times they are required to work (eg later starting times, or compressed hours where the same number of contracted hours are worked but in fewer days)

  • Working from home.

Once the change has been made it is a permanent change to the contract and there is no automatic right to revert to the original contract terms – although a reversion or a trial arrangement could be incorporated into an agreement.

The Work and Families Bill, which is due to come into force in April 2007, will extend the right to ask for flexible working to the carers of adults – estimated to make up 3.5 million of the workforce.

Government figures indicate that 47 per cent of mothers work flexi-time compared to just 17 per cent in 2002, and almost triple the number of new fathers now work flexibly. It is likely that many adult carers may also want to take advantage of their right to ask for flexible working.

Workplaces are allowed to refuse a request if it would have a detrimental effect in the workplace, would cost too much or if there is insufficient work during the periods the employee has requested to work. Indications are that around 10 per cent of flexible working requests have been refused.

Not all employers have restricted the right to offer flexible working to employees with children and this attitude seems to be receiving government support.

Jim Fitzpatrick said: “Microsoft UK opened flexible working to all employees in 2003 – and this has had measurable business benefits in terms of staff retention and morale. I am in no doubt, however, that many more companies could benefit from similar policies.

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