If soulless office cubicles, as immortalised in the Dilbert comic strips, defined employment in the 1990s, the new millennium was supposed to be about something different: flexible working, work-life balance, working smarter not harder.
But data suggests the reality is very different. A recent government survey of UK employers found that despite 97 per cent of workplaces offering at least one form of flexible working, including job sharing, flexitime and working remotely, over the past six years there had not been great increases in take-up.
And a report by the Institute of Public Policy Research found that just 19 per cent of working women in the UK were able to vary the hours they work, compared to 41 per cent in Sweden.
This is not for lack of policy changes or public declarations of support. Governments have greatly extended workers’ rights to include flexible arrangements and business leaders have endorsed new ways of working as a boost to productivity.
The business department said that while the increase in take-up of flexible working had been “very minimal”, the introduction of shared parental leave and more rights to request flexibility would help promote more widespread change.
Caroline Artis, senior London partner at consultants EY, said that although attitudes to informal flexible working requests – such as staying at home to wait for a boiler repair – had come on in leaps and bounds, she feared formal flexible working “has ground to a halt because it has come to be seen as a women’s issue, particularly a women parents’ issue”.
Ms Artis said EY focused on holding events which “aren’t just mums with kids” but involved senior male figures speaking about how they worked flexibly, to make it clear that options were available – and culturally acceptable – for everyone across the company.
She also, along with many other experts, predicts more progress as Britain emerges from its economic slump: “Every time there is a pinch for talent, then there is another leap forward,” she said.
YouGov research, commissioned by the CBI and online parenting network Mumsnet, found that 42 per cent of employees said they would be uncomfortable asking their bosses to let them work more flexibly. The figures were almost identical for men and women.
Carol Rosati, director at executive search firm Harvey Nash, said the reluctance to ask was “a cultural thing; it is all about acceptable cultural norms”. She added it was “time that businesses think differently about how they treat people”, particularly as technological advances have blurred the lines between work and personal time.
Ms Rosati, also founder of the Inspire network which focuses on connecting senior businesswomen, stressed that flexible working should not be considered something new, noting “men have gone to play golf on Friday afternoon for years but have not felt the need to formalise it”.
Jill Shedden, group director of human resources at Centrica, owner of British Gas, said she firmly believed “the days of leaving a jacket on the back of a chair are long over”. Offering flexible working was an important tool for attracting and keeping all staff, not just women with children, and many in the younger generation were now expecting it as standard. She added that she expected the number of requests to increase as the economy picked up.
Ksenia Zheltoukhova, research adviser for the CIPD, the professional HR body, said there was still a “bit of a stigma” about what roles can be done flexibly, and that many people may have felt it was “not the right climate” during the recession to request flexible arrangements.
Her research suggests that 70 per cent of flexible working arrangements are only established when employees request them. The CBI is calling on businesses to adopt a prescription in favour of flexibility when the job is advertised, to show greater openness to job sharing in more senior roles.
Katja Hall, deputy CBI director-general, said that businesses should “challenge outdated assumptions and give their employees more confidence to ask about the options. Flexibility is not just for parents but for all staff”.
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