On 30 June 2021 Labour MP Tulip Siddiq introduced a new Flexible Working Bill.
If passed, the bill will compel employers to build flexible working arrangements into employment contracts from the outset.
The bill could extend flexible working practices such as flexitime, term-time working, compressed hours, job sharing, and predictable shift patterns to all workers, not just office employees.
Before the pandemic, in 2019, we wrote about a Flexible Working Bill put forth by the UK Conservative MP Helen Whately. The Bill sought to make flexible working the default position for all employees, however it wasn’t brought forward in 2020 due to Covid-19.
Then on 30 June 2021 Labour MP Tulip Siddiq introduced a new Flexible Working Bill that, if passed, will compel employers to build flexible working arrangements into employment contracts from the outset – except in exceptional circumstances.
Companies will also have to advertise the flexible arrangements on offer.
Ultimately, if the Bill is made law, flexible working will go from being an employee perk to a must-have for all UK businesses across different sectors of the economy.
What Is the Flexible Working Bill in the UK?
Siddiq, who is the Shadow Minister for Children & Early Years, introduced the Flexible Working Bill through the Ten Minute Rule, which allows a backbench MP to make their case for a new Bill in a speech lasting up to ten minutes.
During her speech, Siddiq said the Bill would “give workers the right to flexible working from the first day of employment, except in exceptional circumstances” and “require employers to offer flexible working arrangements in employment contracts and advertise the available types of such flexibility in vacancy notices.”
Although it’s rare that Ten Minute Rule Bills become law, this one has cross-party support and is co-sponsored by MPs from the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Green Party, SNP, and DUP. In June the UK government also said it was considering making flexible working – including part-time working, flexitime or compressed hours – a “default option”.
Is There Really an Appetite for Flexible Working?
Recruitment platform Reed told the BBC earlier this month that the percentage of jobs advertising working from home has risen since before the pandemic. Prior to the UK lockdown, 1% of vacancies on the platform advertised remote working compared with 5% in 2021.
It also found that vacancies and applications featuring the terms “dynamic” or “hybrid” working rose at the beginning of the pandemic. However, roles advertising hybrid working fell from 9.2% in January to 5.6% in July. According to Reed, this could suggest that employers are tentative about embracing hybrid working permanently.
Surveys across the board reveal a strong appetite for flexible working among workers. As part of its 2021 Work Reimagined Employee Survey professional services firm EY polled 1,000 UK workers and discovered that four in five want work flexibility. 47% said they’d even contemplate moving jobs if their employer didn’t offer flexible working as an option.
In terms of the type of flexible working people want, 39% of those surveyed said they’d like more choice over when they work and 43% wanted more choice over where they work.
Is the “Great Flexible Working Experiment” Inclusive?
It’s easy to forget that not everyone has been privy to the “great flexible working experiment” that lots of office workers have been participating in over the last 18 months. In her speech, Siddiq recognised that while working from home during the pandemic has been “life changing” for some, flexibility isn’t as widespread as some may assume.
It’s important to remember that flexible working extends beyond remote or hybrid working options.
“There’s a misperception that the country has enjoyed a year of flexible working. The reality is that the majority of workers, particularly those on lower incomes, have not felt the benefits of home working and all other forms of flexibility have declined since last March.”
It’s important to remember that flexible working extends beyond remote or hybrid working options. Analysis by the CIPD of data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that part-time working fell from 28.3% to 27.6% between April and June 2020 and October and December 2020, and flexi-time fell by one percentage point to 12.6 per cent.
Current Rules on Flexible Working in the UK
Under current UK law employees can request flexible working arrangements after 26 weeks of employment with the company. These requests are limited to one every 12 months. The UK Government website states (on 12.08.21) that employers can reject an application for any of the following reasons:
extra costs that will damage the business
the work cannot be reorganised among other staff
people cannot be recruited to do the work
flexible working will affect quality and performance
the business will not be able to meet customer demand
there’s a lack of work to do during the proposed working times
the business is planning changes to the workforce.
Will Making Flexible Working Law Mean More Workplace Equality?
Only if flexible working options are made available to all.
Speaking to HR Magazine, Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), said she supports Siddiq’s bill and believes it could accelerate equality by addressing barriers faced by women, carers, disabled workers and older workers.
That said, the TUC also warned that unless flexible working is extended to everyone, a class divide could emerge. “Those who can work from home will be more likely to get flexible working options in the future, compared to those who must be in a workplace,” O’Grady explained.
According to the TUC, the Bill could provide the solution. It could extend flexible working practices such as flexitime, term-time working, compressed hours, job sharing and predictable shift patterns to all workers, not just office employees.
To achieve flexible working equality for all workers, the Bill needs to factor in flexible work hours as well as flexible work locations, for those who work in roles that can’t be fulfilled in a remote context, such as restaurant staff and shop workers, for instance.
What Is “False Flexibility” and Why Should We Be Wary of It?
In TWinFM, Giles Fuchs, CEO of flexible workspace operator Office Space in Town, shared his thoughts on the Flexible Working Bill and warned against “false flexibility”.
“The news that the right to work from home could become law comes in clear recognition that workers value autonomy, trust and flexibility, but I would strongly caution employers and legislators against the ‘false flexibility’ of permanent, full-time remote working and the damage this could cause to employee wellbeing.
“Ditching office work completely in favour of long-term remote working can have profoundly negative consequences. Our 2020 research found that 29 per cent of workers cited loneliness as a significant downside to working from home, with 25 per cent reporting feelings of anxiety and 57 per cent feeling it did not improve their work-life balance. Ultimately, just 5 per cent wished to work remotely full time.
“The value of office working in providing the chance to collaborate, develop professionally and define work-life balance should not be discounted when flexible workstyles are being developed post-pandemic…”
It’s an important point: going “fully remote” isn’t the same as embracing flexible working. Some would argue that it’s the opposite. There’s a real case to be made in favour of the office when it comes to collaboration, learning and the ability to separate work from home life, but the fact also remains that not everyone’s home environment is suitable for work.
At the end of the day, flexible working is all about making work and career progression more accessible by offering elements of choice. There’s still a lot we don’t know about how the proposed legislation would work.
For instance, would it extend to all workers? What would be considered as “exceptional circumstances”? And how would it work in practice in employment contracts?
We’ll know a bit more on Friday 19 November when the Bill is set to have its second reading. It’ll be debated and at the end of the debate, the Commons will decide whether it should be given its second reading by voting, meaning it can proceed to the next stage.