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"The pandemic has allowed us to test flexible working": Mumsnet responds to Flexible working consultation

Mumsnet submitted an organisational response to the Government’s Making Flexible Working the Default consultation which closed in December 2021. Here’s an edited version.

By Mumsnet HQ | Last updated Jan 19, 2022

Woman working from home

“Lockdown has shown employers that working from home and flexible working are viable options.”

94% of parents we surveyed last year agreed with this statement, with 70% of them feeling their employer was now more open to it than before.

“Flexible working and hybrid working is something that women (in particular mothers) have been desperate for for years,” our founder Justine Roberts recently told Sky News. “What the pandemic has done is allowed us to test this, experiment with this, and the world hasn't fallen in.” 

In our survey, 86% of parents rated flexible working hours as a priority. Policies considered to make an employer most family friendly were ‘a constructive attitude towards ad hoc requests’ and ‘openness towards non-standard working patterns’. Last year, 50% of users told us that their partner (so mostly dads) would like to work from home more, or work more flexibly, in the future.

Yet, frustratingly, this hasn’t really translated into the jobs market. A recent audit of five million job adverts found that flexible hours were only mentioned in 3% of them. The report by Timewise also found that only 8% mentioned homeworking, and only 10% offered the possibility of part-time work. Three in four jobs advertised did not offer any sort of flexible working options. 87% of women we surveyed in November 2020 who were looking for paid work said it was difficult to find work opportunities that offer the flexibility they require.

And while many mums are surprised at just how difficult it is to get back into paid work, this depends on where you work. Supportive and flexible work is more available as you progress up the career ladder. We’ve found that there’s an enormous gulf, in terms of family-friendly working conditions, between those who earn less than £25k and those who earn more. 

Changing the culture of work towards output rather than presenteeism, towards family-friendly flexibility with meaningful work-life balance, is good for everyone. Allowing employees to work flexible hours is, according to three quarters of HR managers in this Women and Work 2021 report by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, “one of the most effective things they’ve done to improve employee well-being over the past year” and drastically reduces the likelihood of burn-out. 

Flexible working isn’t just about our individual work patterns. It’s about women’s place in the workplace and in wider society. It’s about the gender pay gap. It’s about sharing childcare and chores equally between parents. It’s about normalising fathers doing half. It’s about women’s economic empowerment and financial independence. It’s about our pensions, still so much lower than men’s. It’s about power.

As for fears that more remote working and flexible working will disadvantage women, this is something that employers need to guard against. As Justine Roberts says, "There is a risk that, as we move to sort of more established patterns,  the women end up being the remote workers and the men go back to the office. And because they're in the office, they have more influence. But I strongly feel that it's up to employers to counter that and to work out how to make hybrid working work for everyone."

Woman working at a desk

Do you agree that the Right to Request Flexible Working should be available to all employees from their first day of employment?

We do. We support the Government’s plans to make the right to request flexible working a legal right from day one of employment, meaning that every employee will have the right to request flexible working, regardless of time served.

However, the evidence shows that the right to request alone is inadequate. We know that this request is very often rejected. A 2021 survey of almost 13,000 mums in paid work by the TUC and Mother Pukka found that half (50%) don’t get the flexibility they request at work - their current employer had rejected or only accepted part of their flexible working request.

We see the impact of this on Mumsnet all the time. One of our users exemplified the dilemma faced by many mothers in November, writing that she was considering leaving work completely: “My flexible working application was denied. I am looking for part-time jobs but it’s extremely rare that one actually comes up and the chances of a part-time job being advertised within commutable distance and that I am successful in applying for seem pretty remote.”

Not only are requests being denied but employees are put off from asking because of their work culture. The same survey found that 42% said they were worried about their employers’ negative reaction, and the same number said there was no point in making a request as it would be turned down. Only one in 20 (5%) mums in paid work who had not made a flexible work request said it was because they didn’t need it. Two in five (42%) mums said they wouldn’t feel comfortable asking about flexible working in a job interview because they thought they would be discriminated against. 

We also know that parents - and other people who need flexibility in order to work - need to know before their first day if flexibility will be possible. The TUC found that more than nine in 10 mums who worked flexibly said they would find it difficult or impossible to do their job without that flexibility, and nearly seven in 10 working dads say they feel stuck in their current role because of concerns that they wouldn’t find another job with the right flexibility.

Right to request also means that you would need to ask in an interview or on your first day in a new job. Four in 10 mums in paid work said they wouldn’t ask for flexibility in an interview because they thought they would be discriminated against and their request would be rejected (TUC and Mother Pukka survey). 

And even when flexible working requests are approved, the Government’s own research has found that over half (51%) of women had experienced discrimination or disadvantage as a direct result. 

Clearly much needs to change. A lack of flexibility is a key part of the reason that 96% of mothers agree having children affects women’s careers for the worse, while just 9% thought the same was true for fathers' careers (Mumsnet survey 2019).

Given your experiences of Covid-19 as well as prior to the pandemic, do all of the business reasons for rejecting a flexible working request remain valid?

The eight business grounds for rejecting a flexible working request are broad and can make flexible work requests easy to deny. However, the changes brought by the pandemic have called a number of them into question. Reasons such as the burden of additional cost may no longer be valid, with many workplaces having already adapted to flexible or remote working. Reasons such as a detrimental impact on quality or on performance may no longer be valid given that research has found that flexible working can actually increase productivity.

As the business world adjusts to a new normal and grasps the opportunity to reform work for the better, we think the eight grounds to refuse flexible working need to be revisited. We would argue there is even a strong case for redesigning the system and replacing the business reasons with a requirement upon employers to evidence why the request cannot be made. 

Do you agree that employers should be required to show that they have considered alternative working arrangements when rejecting a statutory request for flexible working?

Employers should show that they have meaningfully and genuinely considered the request for flexible working. There should be a solid and defined process requiring a meeting, and the Flexible Working Taskforce should develop guidance on a process or downloadable form which can assist employees and employers in exploring alternatives. 

Do you think that the current statutory framework needs to change in relation to how often an employee can submit a request to work flexibly?

Yes. Employees should be able to make an unlimited number of flexible working requests. 

Do you think that the current statutory framework needs to change in relation to how quickly an employer must respond to a flexible working request?

Yes - we think the current time limit of three months should be reduced. Part of being flexible means responding as soon as possible to allow for changes of pattern and the fact that parents and others with caring responsibilities may sometimes have to change their work patterns at fairly short notice. 

If the Right to Request flexible working were to be amended to allow multiple requests, how many requests should an employee be allowed to make per year?

They should be able to make them an unlimited number of times. One of our 10 recommendations for how to make flexible working work for everyone is to cultivate a culture where it’s OK to ask for flexible work without prejudice - even if the answer may sometimes be ‘no.’ 

If the Right to Request flexible working were amended to reduce the time period within which employers must respond to a request, how long should employers have to respond?

The employers should respond as soon as reasonably possible. Being flexible about flexibility is key to the process and we think three months’ wait for people with caring responsibilities, such as parents, is too long. 

Dad on laptop while child enjoys TV

What would encourage employees to make time-limited requests to work flexibly? Please provide examples.

Employees being aware of their rights as parents in the workplace is crucial - and our regular clinics with Maternity Action have this aim. However, the most important thing is workplace culture. We’ve drawn up 10 recommendations for employers to normalise flexible working, based on the wisdom of parents on Mumsnet. We aim to live by these at Mumsnet HQ, and believe this is key to staff retention, loyalty and wellbeing.

  1. Make it OK to ask: Cultivate a culture in which it's OK to ask for flexible working without prejudice – even if the answer may sometimes be 'no.'
  2. Be flexible about flexibility: Be open to changing patterns. Parents with preschoolers may prefer to work compressed hours (some longer days with other days completely at home); people with school-age children may prefer short days to allow for school runs and the post-school catch-up with their kids. Others may need different patterns depending on whether it's term time or school holidays.
  3. Let men be parents too: Look at your paternity pay and leave offering. How many of your employees are using shared parental leave, especially with recent estimates suggesting only 3 to 4% of fathers take it up? The data shows that men worry about asking for flexible working and parental leave even more than women. Be proactive, and offer reassurance that their careers won't suffer.
  4. Be upfront: If you'd be prepared to consider something (e.g enhanced paternity pay for longer periods), say so upfront – don't make people guess. Email your staff to remind them of key policies. Mention in job ads that you're open to job shares and flexibility.
  5. Focus on educating and supporting line managers and middle managers: Line managers are a company's gatekeepers. You may have great policies, but are all your managers on board – or are they filibustering because they're not sure what to do? Keep a dossier of things that have worked well – working patterns, unpaid leave, ways of addressing returners – and share it with managers; make it part of your institutional knowledge. Consider having a portfolio of flexible working patterns that are open to everyone, and make sure people know they exist. Be proactive: check in with line managers and ask how they're dealing with requests.
  6. Focus on returners: Mentoring, return-to-work seminars, properly planned KIT days, confidence-boosting sessions, buddy supporters, training packages… When it comes to reintegrating returning parents, it pays to go above and beyond.
  7. Have role models: Let people see senior employees and directors working flexibly and taking parental leave – without their careers juddering to a halt.
  8. Be innovative: Could you offer staff the option to 'buy' additional leave? Could you switch from a 'working hours' culture to measurement by results? Could you band together with other local employers to commission a subsidised holiday play scheme (as some government departments do in Whitehall)? Could meetings be scheduled only in 'core' school-time hours? Could you even ditch the 9-5 completely? What could work for you?
  9. Flex for all: Restricting flexibility to parents or carers fosters resentment. Can you open it up to all your workers?
  10. Measure, analyse, learn, adjust: Do you know how many people work flexibly in your firm, how many dads take statutory paternity leave, or which teams are particularly good at reintegrating returners? Do you know whether teams with lots of flex workers do particularly well against targets? Do you know which managers approve lots of flex working requests and which don't? If you track and analyse, you could learn valuable lessons about what works for your business and do more of the good stuff.