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Gill Dix: Lifting the lid on flexible working

Friday 22 September 2017

With so much focus on the gender pay gap it's a positive development to see the debate turning in equal measure to why the gap exists in the first place, and what can be done about it.

Gill Dix Gill Dix

Gill Dix, Head of Strategy at Acas.




One area that is increasingly recognised as relevant is how flexible working can contribute positively to the gender question, including pay.

Flexible working has been high on the policy agenda for some time. Its popularity is not surprising as it appears to offer a solution to lots of workplace 'problems'. What do you do to help people return to work from sick leave? How do you help mothers return to work after maternity leave? And how do you accommodate the needs of carers or those transitioning into retirement? Flexible working seems the ideal solution to ensuring that the stuff of life can be integrated into work, whilst meeting business needs.

Two new research projects published by Acas has sought to lift the lid in order to identify how best to integrate flexibility in a way that works for all. One study 'pdf icon Flexibility in the Workplace: Implications of flexible work arrangements for individuals, teams and organisations [472kb]', conducted by Manchester University researchers, looked at the impacts of introducing flexibility in hours and locations work. It revealed that whilst the benefits for wellbeing and productivity are notable, the formulae is not simplistic and organisations, and individuals often face trade-offs.

As my colleague Adrian Wakeling said in a recent article in Personnel Today, flexible working has "the same balance of benefits and penalties as any 'standard' working pattern''. For instance, remote working provides more opportunity to concentrate without workplace distractions, but also more opportunity to feel isolated; more sense of autonomy, but less opportunity for collaboration.

A second Acas study launched last week 'pdf icon Flexible working for parents returning to work: Maintaining career development [396kb]', this time focusing on mothers returning to work after child birth, further confirms the complexity.

Carried out by the Institute for Employment Studies, the project considers how men and women respond to the early months after childbirth and the stance of their employers. The evidence points to considerable disparity in behaviours. Employers' engagement with women regarding child birth was stronger: they were likely to be encouraged to keep in touch, and engage with opportunities for flexible working on return. In contrast men were less likely to be approached or raise the question of accessing flexible work arrangements. And many men choose to eschew the option for parental leave, instead taking annual leave - perhaps seeking to attract less attention to their life outside the workplace. When women take up flexible working, whether its reduced hours or remote working, the research found they are often more vulnerable to being overlooked for promotion or progression opportunities.

Active steps need to be taken to address this cultural stereo-typing. The research provides valuable insight into companies that are doing just that: adopting measures to create equality in accommodating workers affected by child birth, caring roles and other stuff of life. Examples include equalising opportunities for paid leave for mothers and fathers; encouraging men to take leave; supporting managers to lead teams comprising flexible workers; maintaining fairness in performance management; and developing schemes such as mentoring to support returners, promote opportunities and keep careers on track.

It is clear that access to flexible working has enabled many to achieve a better work life balance. But there is evidence that the same flexibility that brings benefits, may be locking some into roles (and pay) which can act as a deterrent and perpetuate gender stereotyping. The answer must at least in part lie in stepping back, and revisiting the value of flexibility in general and the agile, motivated and engaged workforce that it has the strong potential to bring.

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