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When you hear the term ‘flexible working‘, what does it make you think about? Do you think it’s just about ‘women’ or ‘mothers in the workplace’? Do you think that it’s much wider and covers all parents?

Do you ever think about carers or other defined groups that may require flexibility for their personal circumstances? Flexible working has no ‘one size fits all’ and it’s almost impossible to define what it is and what it looks like, because the truth is that it is so difficult to define. It’s such a wide topic of discussion and one which you can recycle repeatedly, but in this instance, I want to specifically talk about ‘working parents’ and ‘childcare’.

Let’s go back to basics, just for a second. Flexible working is something which employees have the right to request and there are several legal protections in place, that allow employees to utilise to see their requests approved. By law you have the right to request to work flexibly if you have worked for your employer for 26 weeks, you are legally classed as an employee and you have not made any other flexible requests in the last 12 months. If you meet these criteria then you are entitled to request to work flexibly and your employer must respond with a period of 3 months, as well as following their own policy. Now some employers and we are seeing more and more employers endorsing flexible working from day one and in fact advertising in their job vacancies this right. This is something that we recently saw endorsed by Liz Truss, Minister for Women and Equalities, Liz Truss who stated that it is ‘beneficial to both employers and employees to normalise flexible working’. What an amazing step in the right direction to recognise how the last 2 months have really shaped the way that we will work, forever.

When it comes to making a request to work flexibly, there are some key things to remember when making your request and above all, I recommend that employees are as open and honest about what it is that they are really asking for. If you go into the discussion unclear yourself or perhaps not specific enough about what it is that you need to find that balance, you will be on the back foot from the very off. An area that can often be very emotive when it comes to making flexible working requests, is when it comes to childcare.

A lot of employers that I speak to, sometimes say that they are ‘flexible’ because they allow their workforce to take time off for dependents (childcare), no questions asked or that they do allow it because they don’t put flexible processes in place for say late arrivals to work, but here is where the problem manifests itself. Employers that lack structure and understanding when it comes to what flexible working really is and how it should be managed and how employees really feel about it, are always going to end up in a state of confusion and their workforces are going to end up disengaged and unable to communicate clearly. Whilst it is great if you are genuinely an employer that has no issues when it comes to being flexible around childcare, then shout it from the rooftops, embed it in your culture, your recruitment strategy and visualise what it really looks like to be completely flexible. Also, be clear that emergency childcare, is not the same as flexible childcare/work scenarios. There are completely different policies that support emergency care for children and dependents. Time off for dependents is a completely different legal term, known as Parental Leave which is designed to give parents more time with their children and entitles you to take up to 18 weeks of leave per parent, per child, usually unpaid until their 18th birthday.

So, let’s say that you are in the scenario of having to make a request to work flexibly for reasons of childcare, how do you go about this? Well, the first thing is to consider what would you like to be the case, do you want to reduce your hours to part time and hence reducing your salary or do you want to consider compressed hours e.g., working the same number of hours but across a different schedule i.e. in 4 days. Flexible working provides a range of opportunities for working parents and accommodating childcare requests. Depending on whether you already have your childcare place or not, will depend on the schedule you may require. We already know that most nurseries work with some element of wrap around care between the hours of 7:30am and 6:00pm and some extend their hours beyond that, to enable working parents to travel to and from work and have additional level of flexibility, but it still something to bear in mind when making your request. Traditionally childcare providers work Monday-Friday during the daytime, but in recent times there are new organisations emerging that provide 7 day a week cover and more pay as you go type options, which is simply amazing. A recent article at Working Mums looked at organisations such as At Home Childcare and Third door are really quite fascinating case studies and are the new format of childcare that could start to emerge across the UK.

Next, you should consider what the benefits are of the organisation granting this request for you are for both you and them. I encourage people to be honest here; so, if you are looking to spend every Friday with your toddler then say that. If you are hoping to pick up from school twice a week, say that too. As a parent, you are completely entitled to have a choice when it comes to working and finding something that works for everyone involved. So how else can you convince an employer of some of the benefits for them? For me, first and foremost is employee wellbeing. It’s ok to say that by approving this request, it will really support your own employee wellbeing, your mental health and that of your family. Sometimes 30 minutes either way can make such a fundamental difference to dashing out or into the office and how you feel when you leave or arrive, that cannot be underestimated. Consider the additional benefits for them too. A study by the CIPD in 2019 reported that employees felt 77% happier when they could work more flexibly and at home, that’s huge! We know that the last 12 months have perhaps seen a seismic shift to some of that, which I’ll talk about shortly, but there is sufficient evidence and reporting to confirm that employees are happier when they can work more flexibly, and it is more productive for most organisations.

Other benefits for employers include decreased absenteeism and absence in the workplace itself. A survey by the HSE in 2020 outlined that over 15,000,000 are lost to mental health problems, stress and anxiety which makes the option to work more flexibly even more compelling. If an employee is highlighting this will make their life less stressful and more flexible and happier, surely we owe it to them and ourselves to at least try it? It’s also important to highlight that job satisfaction and work life balance are the key reasons that flexible working just works for so many employees. It’s something that employers shouldn’t underestimate and particularly when we start to consider employee turnover rates in some sectors, perhaps more consideration to this more flexible approach could hugely benefit the way in which employers perceive flexible working.

As we can see, Flexible working is such a huge topic and one that in a short blog, we cannot give full respect to, but it’s certainly something that employers need to consider very carefully in the coming years. I cannot ignore the fact that for the last 12 months here in the UK we have been part of a global pandemic and that we have been ‘working at home’. We know that 1 in 5 workers has been completely home-based for the last year and that is staggering. Our working lives have changed forever and as our home and work lives collided, whilst it was an impossible situation and we all tried our best to balance and juggle the workload, it also created a completely cosmic outcome of sorts, because companies realised that we really could work at home and we did so in impossible scenarios with the entire household here under one roof. Some companies embraced the change because they had no choice, others just were not able to, and I have written more about this topic recently for Link Up London a fantastic charity in South London. Take a look on some of the myths around flexible working and how to dispel them.

What do the next 12 months and beyond look like? Nobody really knows, but if we continue to speak out, use our voice and our passion for flexible working in the workplace, perhaps, just perhaps, someone is really starting to listen and this is the start of the very next and exciting chapter.

Laura Walker, Director at Fresh Solutions HR, an independent HR Consultancy based in West Sussex delivers tailor-made, practical solutions for businesses.

Laura works with companies every day to encourage them to see the wider benefits of flexible working for their organisations. Laura fully supports the rights of working parents to be able to work flexibly and spends a lot of her free time supporting campaigns such as ‘Pregnant then Screwed’ and helping working mothers to get the flexibility they are looking for. Laura will be working with us in April as part of a hosted panel webinar on Flexible Working. She will be joining Emma Cleary of Flexibility Matters and Joanne Yates at Freedom Works.