For the last decade flexible working has been officially ‘family friendly’. In the UK we have had legislation that gave the right to parents to request flexible working since 2003. That gave a clear message that the reason for allowing someone to vary their work pattern was to accommodate family commitments and this was reinforced in 2007 when the legislation was extended to carers for adults as well.
This has led to the inevitable link between flexible working and other benefits such as maternity leave, designed to accommodate people who have children. Many organisations introduced policies and procedures that simply complied with the law and allowed parents to ask to vary their hours, or maybe do some work from home, but did not allow other employees this opportunity. As a result, thousands of people are now benefitting from a flexible working arrangement because their employer was obliged to listen to their request. The vast majority of the proposals from employees turned out to be reasonable and have proved to work well for both parties.
However, the world of work has moved on. Now people who don’t have children are asking why they too can’t work flexibly. They may want to avoid commuting every day and have a different work pattern. They notice that their colleagues who are parents still manage to get their work done effectively and that many of them say they are more productive. And finally legislation has caught up with the realities of working life in the 21st century. Now all employees have the right to request flexible working, so those employers who were simply complying with the legal minimum have had to update their policies.
For those organisations that already gave and equal ‘right to request’ to all employees this may not be a dramatic change. However they are still likely to get an increased number of applications from non-parents as the idea of flexible working for all takes over. For those employers who have so far treated this as a ‘family friendly’ policy there is a bigger shift involved. No longer does it make sense to discriminate on the basis of the family situation. The reason that someone wants to work flexibly becomes irrelevant and employers should not be putting themselves in the position of judging the value of one employee’s personal life versus another.
So finally, employers are being forced to view flexible working as something other than family friendly. If they take the time to look at the evidence they will find that it is actually ‘business friendly’. There is now a wealth of evidence to show that giving people choice over when and where to do their work, results in improved productivity. Those organisations wanting to attract and retain the best talent (and who doesn’t?) will recognise that saying ‘yes’ to requests makes business sense. And as we move further away from the ‘family friendly’ era we will move closer to the day when the idea of fixed working patterns becomes the exception and it is assumed that all work arrangements are flexible as long as they meet the business requirements.