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Getting flexibility right for working parents

by Jane van Zyl, CEO, Working Families

Working Families mission is to remove the barriers that people with caring responsibilities face in the workplace. As part of that mission, we work with employers (including ABI members) to support them to create, build and sustain flexible and family friendly workplaces. The ABI’s Making Flexible Work Charter is a clear, easily implemented strategy to deliver diversity within the industry, reaping all the business benefits this brings.

In the summer of 2021, as we saw lockdown restrictions easing, we captured how the UK’s 13 million working parents were feeling about their experiences of work and family life over recent months[1].

During the pandemic, most working parents felt supported by their employer to manage their childcare arrangements. 29% were offered the opportunity to change hours and working pattern to accommodate caring and home-schooling responsibilities. In a survey that we ran in the summer of 2020, our employer members reported that productivity stayed the same or increased. Is there a correlation between employers generally experiencing this productivity gain during the first lockdown and a willingness to be more flexible? [2]

Making it clear: Some parents are feeling particularly vulnerable in the current labour market because of their parental and caring responsibilities. Looking ahead to when the furlough scheme ends, nearly a third of working parents (29%) said they were concerned that their position as a parent with caring responsibilities made them more vulnerable to redundancy. This rises to 34% amongst women. This highlights how precarious work is for many parents and their awareness of the difficulties of finding and maintaining a job that fits alongside family life. Where employers make flexible working policies transparent for all, this empowers everyone in the organisation.

Making it possible: Pro-actively advertising jobs as flexible would make them much more appealing to working parents (currently 13 million people), influencing not only their future choice of employer, but, in many cases, their capacity to enter the labour market. 69% agree that they would be more likely to apply for a job that was advertised as flexible, and this rises to 76% amongst women. This provides clear direction for employers to change practices and to open up access to more diverse talent. We’d encourage everyone to use our free ‘Happy to Talk Flexible Working’ strapline.

Making it happen: However, one in five (19%) of parents say that they did not receive any support from their employer to manage the challenges of being a parent during the pandemic. In general, many parents are worried about what will happen when restrictions are lifted should we move back to less flexible ways of working. The majority of parents said they were concerned that less flexible ways of working would have a negative impact on family life (50% versus 32%). But, as the main beneficiaries of flexible working, middle-class parents were more concerned about its loss than working-class parents (58% versus 39%).

It’s no surprise the experience of flexible working for parents is a product of wider inequalities relating to educational attainment and employment. Access to flexible working has traditionally been associated with knowledge-based roles, often based in offices, that have been dominated by middle class people. Its vital employers monitor flexible working arrangements to ensure all employees have equal access to them. When we talk about ‘flexible working’ it’s important to note that we are not just talking about remote working or working from home – we are talking about flexing hours, part time work and job sharing too. Some ABI members have got this completely right – particularly those that have signed the Making Flexible Work Charter.

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Parents don’t expect employers to do this on their own. They want the government to intervene to create more flexible jobs (77%), and for employers to use their own initiative to do so (84%) - and would consider jobs advertised as flexible more attractive when looking for work in the future (69%). Zurich[3] (a Working Families employer member) has evidence of the positive effect this has on increasing the number of applications for roles and increasing the number of senior women applying for roles, which has had a positive impact on their gender pay gap. An additional positive: the improvement of engagement from Zurich employees already working flexibly (including part time).

As I finished writing, government outlined their proposals on improving access to flexible working. We warmly welcome this big step forward. The proposals mean that now employers will have to respond to requests more swiftly: currently anyone putting in a request to work flexibly has to wait up to six months for a response. For parents and carers juggling work with caring responsibilities, this long wait was unnecessary and tortuous. Employers will also have to provide a full explanation behind any refusals: a great step towards changing organisational cultures to make flexibility more accessible. Importantly, though, the right to request is not the same as the right to have. We know from our legal advice service that many requests are refused to parents and carers, often for opaque reasons. There is still work to do to make sure that more employees can access all the flexibility that their role can support.


[1] https://workingfamilies.org.uk/publications/flextheuk2021/
[2] https://workingfamilies.org.uk/publications/working-through-covid-19-and-beyond-the-perspective-from-employers/
[3] https://www.zurich.co.uk/en/about-us/media-centre/company-news/2020/zurich-sees-leap-in-women-applying-for-senior-roles-after-offering-all-jobs-as-flexible

Last updated 10/10/2023