Flexible working: It's the future

February 20, 2010

“WHEN you find yourself looking after triplets you have to accept conditions that would not be imposed on political prisoners.” Matthew Wilson is joking . . . well, sort of. He adds: “The saddest moment of my career was giving up working on The Archers.” At the time, 11 years ago, he was a sound recorder for the BBC, but when his partner gave birth to two boys and a girl the long working hours became impossible.

Today Wilson is a single father who has equal custody of his children. He now works as a BBC broadcast engineer. By tradition, it’s a male job but, despite this, he works on a flexible rota that has been adapted for his family requirements.

“The BBC has been fantastic. I look after the children on alternate weeks, so I work a short week and then a long week. Most of the blokes in the office are very active fathers so when I was granted custody they said, let’s see what we can do to make it work. What makes me sad is that this is totally at the discretion of the BBC – the rules say they don’t have to offer me these conditions because my children were too old to qualify for flexible working proposals.”

Under government plans, from April the right to request flexible working will be extended from the 6.25m people who qualify at present, to include an estimated extra 4.5m workers, and will apply to any parent of a child under 16.

Some recruitment experts warn, however, that one of the key reasons given for supporting the legislation – greater rights for working women – is precisely why the new rules will fail. Sarah Jackson of Working Families said: “The attitude has been women first, men later. But now that the recession has hit, we will never get around to the men.”

Fathers like Wilson are still the exception. Employers granted nine out of ten requests for flexible working last year, but the government adviser who drew up the proposals, Imelda Walsh, found that while three times fewer men applied for flexible working, they were twice as likely to be turned down.

Duncan Fisher of Dad.info and the Fatherhood Institute said that gender inequality was a fundamental flaw in the legislation, and the recession would only make the problem worse.

“Some companies like BT and Lloyds TSB have really worked on changing their institutional thinking. But the culture in Britain is that work comes first. If you don’t put your job first you are relegated to the second tier. Added to that, flexible working is taken up by women, and not by men. Those who work more will do better in the recession than those who work less. The new government rules will worsen the pay gap.”

One woman who has just taken a more flexible job after staying at home to look after her children laughed at the idea that her husband, the director of a pharmaceutical company, might do the same. “No, he’s not thinking about it, not at all. He travels a lot,” said Malika Hioni. Her family moved to Britain from France. She now works three days a week as a PA at the Whittington Hospital in north London, which is a short walk from her house.

“In the respect of seeing work more flexibly, and people taking more overall responsibility for their jobs, Britain is far more advanced than France,” she said. “The hospital said it wanted me to work 22 hours a week, but that I could choose when to do those hours. The new proposals are useful because they reflect the fact that parents of older children also have demands on their time, but in different ways. My five-year-old daughter needs childcare; my 11-year-old son needs time spent on his homework and meetings with his teachers.”

Hioni admitted that flexible working was more accepted in the public sector. Though flexible working can encompass anything from shorter hours to late starts or working from home, employment experts warn that the present system – with too many ad-hoc arrangements and too little overall strategy – places both companies and employees at a disadvantage.

One Midlands manufacturing company had few suitable applicants for the role of a marketing manager, until the job was readvertised as term-time only. The company was then flooded with CVs from well-qualified women. By contrast, a leading financial-services company is making employees sit at their desks all day, despite no work and looming redundancy. “It is ridiculous,” said a recruitment agency that works with the company: “It is the antithesis of flexibility. And what is the benefit to the company?”

Supporters of flexible working claim that, far from beinga burden, it is a useful tool that could help companies to reduce costs and ride out the recession without losing skills. “We are not Victorians going to work in the mills any more,” said Sarah Veale, head of equality and employment rights at the TUC. “We no longer need to work that way.

“For this legislation to be successful, though, we need to make progress in certain areas. Employees need to make a solid business case for a request to work flexibly. Employers need to understand that an overall strategy works better than granting or denying random requests – research shows that companies are more profitable when that strategy is in place.

“Finally, that strategy needs to be one for all workers, and not just parents. It will be a dilemma, to put it mildly, if two people are doing the same job and one is allowed to work flexibly because he has children, while the other does not.”

If the new flexible working proposals are not implemented carefully, there is a risk that workers could take legal action over discrimination.

Wilson said his situation was a case in point, but that his manager packaged the idea asa positive one for other people in the office. “My boss sold the idea on the basis that other people would work fewer weekends, for example. Having said that, my childcare commitments are likely to get bigger– next year the triplets will be going to different secondary schools. I have pushed the envelope as far as it will go.”

He added that without his present arrangement he would not have been given shared custody of his children.

Fisher of Dad.Info agrees that men who take more time off are often better fathers, but he warned there was a penalty. “There will be a division between those who work flexibly, and those who work without condition,” he said. “We are driven by economics and the system is not set up to favour flexible working. There will be discrimination by stealth.”

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