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Will flexible working become the rule, not the exception?

What would flexible working mean for London?

In the middle of July, MP Helen Whatley used the 10-Minute Rule to have her innovative Flexible Working Bill read in parliament. It gained national press coverage at the time, but I think it is fair to say that it was overshadowed by the Tory leadership campaign, Brexit and other yawn-inducing political shenanigans.

Lord knows what the papers will find to fill their columns with when Brexit is done and dusted. Flexible Working, maybe! 

Now to me, what Whatley and her fellow campaigners are trying to achieve could have far-reaching consequences. Basically, the Flex For All campaign is bidding to turn current employment law on its head. The campaigners want to see a switch from the employee having to ask to be allowed to work flexibly to the onus being placed on the employer to propose how it can (or can’t) be done.

In essence, vacancies will be advertised that state what degree of job flexibility is acceptable from the outset.   

At the moment, after you have worked for a company for six months you can ask to be allowed to work flexibly. But there is no guarantee the request will be granted. The employer does not have to agree to it, though they might. If this Bill is passed, flexible working can start on day one and, at the very least, it will need to be considered. 

I interpret this to mean that more and more employers should expect their staff to want to work flexibly. 

If this does come to fruition, what impact will this have on centres of commerce such as London?

Campaigners gather outside parliament before the reading of the Bill. Picture: Emily Gray Photography

Will companies such as Google still want their big HQ building next to Kings Cross as we reported earlier in the year? Will it spell the end of giant HQ buildings as we know them?

Back in the day, it was ‘fashionable’ for major companies to set up their HQs outside London. Towns along the M4 corridor benefitted considerably. There were many reasons – among them cheaper commercial rents and lower wages if they did not have to give a London weighting to salaries. 

But, whether inside or outside of London, will big HQ buildings remain relevant if Flex For All gets its way? Will companies need as many desk spaces if a tidy proportion of the workforce does not work 9 to 5 in the office?

Perhaps I should make my position clear. I very much favour the increased flexibility this Bill appears to represent. In my own job I know I could work remotely at least 50% of the time. But I expect such a request would fall on stoney ground. So, I schlep into the office every day. Maybe this Bill will promote a sea change in attitudes. I hope so. The Bill has had a second reading and will require Government backing to progress further.

There are several organisations behind the campaign. Mother Pukka, Pregnant Then Screwed, Fatherhood Institute and Fawcett Society have joined forces to create Flex For All, calling on the Government to demand flexible working, meaning that all job roles must be advertised as flexible from day one of employment.

Anna Whitehouse, known on social media as Mother Pukka, says: ‘We have been campaigning over five years for effective flexible working and it seems the tide is turning. It feels like the Government is listening, businesses are listening and that the people are being listened to! 

“Finally, flexible working is being seen as something for people – all people – and not just ‘mummies who want to see more of their babies’. Crucially, this is now being seen as something that is not just good for employees but, ultimately, it’s proven to be very good for business too. 

“Flexible working is simply for people wanting to live and often those with responsibilities beyond their control. Those people who want to get off the 9-5 hamster wheel, those who want to work the odd day from home, those living with disabilities, those with medical conditions, those with caring responsibilities – the list goes on. The reading of the Bill in parliament was a huge moment for the #FlexForAll campaign. This was the first day we had been heard.” 

The campaign claims that: 

*Only one in 10 jobs in the UK are advertised as flexible, despite nine out of 10 employees wanting to work that way; 

*There are significant positives to flexible working. The research shows that people are happier (81%), less stressed (67%), more productive (65%) and more empowered (39%);

* Nearly half (48%) of those surveyed who currently work flexibly felt that they were not respected as much, and 51% had taken a pay cut to get flexible hours. 

The Flex For All petition, directed to Greg Clark MP, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, calls for important legislative change. It asks the Government to change the law so that when recruiting a role, an employer will be legally obliged to consider how the position can be done flexibly and to publish the flexible working options available when advertising the position. 

This will give individuals the information they need to decide if the job suits their work-life balance and will help employers attract a wider range of quality candidates. 

Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, says: “Flex For All is an alliance of charities and campaigners who understand the benefits of flexible working to our economy, to business and to employees. The world of work has changed, our labour force has changed, and we need to be sure that UK businesses are adapting to these changes or our economy risks stagnation. 

“It’s the current lack of upfront flexibility that locks people out of the workplace and traps others in part-time work that’s often low paid, undervalued and below their skill level. That is why we are calling on the Government to legislate for all jobs to be flexible by default.”

Whitehouse, founder of Mother Pukka and #FlexAppeal, adds: “Flex For All is not a bonus ball, a nice-to-have or a ping pong table in reception; it’s a fundamental shift in the way we work. If companies are truly dedicated to recruiting a diverse and inclusive workforce, then flexibility is the key. Flex For All is for those with caring responsibilities, those living with disabilities; those wanting to live.”

Gemma Rosenblatt, head of policy of the Fawcett Society, comments: “The slow pace of change on the gender pay gap shows the severity of the situation. To tackle the gap, we need to ensure that everyone who needs to work flexibly is enabled to progress in their career.”

Press call ahead of MP Helen Whately’s bill for Flexible Working. With her is fellow campaigner and writer Matt Farquharson. Picture: Emily Gray Photography

Dr Jeremy Davies, of the Fatherhood Institute adds: “Although men are consistently shown in surveys to be the most dissatisfied with their work-life balance, we hear from lots of dads that flexible working still feels like a distant dream for them. We need flexibility to be the default, rather than something the senior bosses do in secret.”

Alex Currie, vice-president of The Go CO Group supports their mission: “Being upfront about our commitment to flexible working has transformed our business for the better; it has enabled us to attract the best talent, in varied working patterns and not restrict our staff to traditional full-time, set hours. 

“We’ve seen an increase in female applicants in the past 12 months; there was an upwards trend from circa 40% female applicants to circa 58% female by year end.”

MP for Faversham and Mid-Kent Helen Whately adds: “The 40-hour, five day working week no longer reflects the reality of how many modern families live their lives. Too many women are reluctantly dropping out of work or forced to go part-time after having children because their employers won’t allow them flexibility.

“I hope the Government will back this campaign because flexible working is the future.”

Fatherhood Institute 

The Fatherhood Institute is one of the most respected fatherhood organisations in the world. Its research, policy campaigns and family interventions aim to give all children a strong, positive relationship with their fathers; support mothers and fathers as earners and carers; and prepare boys and girls for a future shared role in caring for children. 

Fawcett Society 

The Fawcett Society is the UK’s leading charity campaigning with our members for gender equality and women’s rights at work, at home and in public life. Its vision is of a society in which women and girls in all their diversity are equal and truly free to fulfil their potential. 

Mother Pukka 

Mother Pukka is the ‘platform for people who happen to be parents’ and was founded by Anna Whitehouse and Matt Farquharson in 2015. Through the #FlexAppeal campaign launched in the same year, it has been campaigning for more flexible working for everyone: parents, carers, the care-free and any other kind of human. This has seen it lead flashmobs across the UK, lobby Whitehall, speak at organisations nationwide and give evidence to the Welsh Assembly, all to raise awareness, encourage people to request flex and encourage employers to say yes. 

Pregnant Then Screwed 

Pregnant Then Screwed is a project and campaign which protects, supports and promotes the rights of mothers who suffer the effects of systemic, cultural, and institutional discrimination through our various schemes and activities, including: a free legal advice service, a website where women post their stories of discrimination anonymously, lobbying the Government for legislative change, and a mentor scheme that supports women who are considering legal action against their employer.

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David Buckley

Dave Buckley is a career journalist. “I once went painting girders for a week and discovered I didn’t like heights,” he says. “Apart from that it has always been journalism for me in one form or another.” Past publications worked for include the South-East London Mercury*, Kent Messenger, Daily Express, Today*, News of the World* and Hong Kong Star*. All those marked with an asterisk no longer exist (trend emerging?). He owned and edited a Thailand-based property magazine before returning to England and currently works as a production editor for an East Midlands-based publishing group.

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