Flexible working: why do we need flexible working?
The demand for flexible working
The demand for flexible working is set against a world of work which is rapidly changing. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has conducted a two-year investigation into the way work is changing in the 21st century, and how work can be organised in ways that embrace future work trends. The Commission calls for a radical rethink in the way work is organised in the UK, saying it is still 'largely designed around a mid-20th century lifestyle – sole breadwinner men, with stay-at-home wives'. It points out that surveys show 50 per cent of workers want to work more flexibly, and adds that a variety of factors mean that it now makes sense to encourage a more flexible approach to work. These include:
- growing numbers of women needing or wanting to continue working after having children and demanding work that recognises their experience and abilities
- rising numbers of young people, men and women alike, wanting to combine work and family life
- an ageing population, meaning more demand for workers to have the flexibility to look after elderly relatives – by 2010 it is estimated that nearly 10 million people in the UK will have caring responsibilities for an elderly relative
- more people wanting to work reduced hours as they approach retirement
- growing numbers of young people in higher education, and needing to balance work and study
- the development of technology allowing more remote working.
The EHRC says that not responding to the case for flexible working will have big implications for the UK economy. In an increasingly competitive global economy, it says, the UK will need to retain skilled workers and offer 24-hour service. But the traditional long-hours, desk-bound British work culture is working against these demands. The report says skilled workers, particularly women, are dropping out of the workforce or choosing lower-paid, lower-skilled part-time work in order to balance work and family life. Research shows that 6.5 million people in the UK are not fully using their skills, because either they are not working, or they are working at a level below their abilities. It points out the social costs of pushing women into such types of work, including the entrenchment of the pay gap between men and women. The intensification of work over the past decade, which has seen hours rising, and the amount of work done in those hours rising, has particularly affected women. The knock-on effect is increased stress and illness, and people who are 'straining at the seams, finding it difficult to cope with work and caring'. This is at a time where research shows the importance of good parenting for children’s emotional, social and educational development.
Campaigners say that the advantages of flexible working for employers are huge:
- reduced premises costs as more people work from home
- increasing customer satisfaction as their needs are met around the clock
- better staff motivation – flexibility encourages workers to feel more in control of their life and therefore happier
- falling absenteeism and sickness
- increased productivity
- greater wellbeing among staff
- increased ability to recruit and retain skilled employees
- greater reduction in a company’s carbon footprint as rush-hour traffic reduces.
The returns to the government include more tax for the Treasury from higher-paid salaries; community development – home workers spend more time in their local community, according to research; and falling health bills for treating stress-related illness.