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Kirstie Axtens: Finding flexibility in every role

Tuesday 03 October 2017

Kirstie Axtens, Head of Employer Services at Working Families discusses flexible working

Kirstie Axtens Kirstie Axtens

Kirstie is Head of Employer Services at Working Families.




It's National Work Life Week this week. But why are we bothering? All employees who've been in their role for 26 weeks or more have the right to make a flexible working request. So that means everyone can get the right working pattern, therefore the right work life balance, for them.  Doesn't it?

Not quite.

Flexible working requests get turned down every day of the week, not always for valid business reasons. Fathers are more likely to get their requests turned down than mothers. And even if their request is accepted women may find their development and progression opportunities suffer when they return to work after maternity leave.

How can we turn this around? As the pdf icon Flexible working for parents returning to work: Maintaining career development [396kb] highlights and all our research supports, line managers play a pivotal role in unlocking the flexibility inherent in every role. Even amongst the employers we work with - who are committed to creating agile workplaces - line manager training in dealing with flexible working requests and managing flexible workers is often patchy.

We have been hearing about unconscious bias in recruitment for decades - in our experience it isn't only around protected characteristics like age and ethnicity. Our research has found there's a perception that flexible workers are viewed as less committed to their job, despite employers we work with telling us part time workers perform just as well as their full time counterparts. These persistent perceptions can have very real consequences, leaving parents working hard to juggle work and family life feeling disheartened and disengaged.

The way to overcome this in the workplace is to embed flexibility properly in organisational culture. Policies are very welcome but they need to translate into the lived experiences of employees. Flexibility shouldn't be left to the discretion or 'goodwill' of managers; there should be clarity about what is available so that everyone knows where they stand.

At Working Families, we think the way the labour market is designed needs to be turned on its head so flexibility is the normal way of working. We're increasingly seeing employers asking managers to justify creating a full time post. Far better for hiring managers to think through the best way to get the job done at the outset than try to squash a five day a week job into four after a discussion six months in. Our Happy to Talk Flexible Working strapline helps employers do just this.

The Working Families members and award winners profiled in pdf icon Flexibility in the Workplace: Implications of flexible work arrangements for individuals, teams and organisations [472kb] show how working with the grain of employee's lives has paid dividends for employers. It's not difficult to see how being able to balance work and family life would make you more motivated and loyal when you are working

Flexibility isn't about special treatment for working parents. It's simply good business sense.

Working Families is the UK's work life balance charity. To find out more about Working Families employer membership visit or email

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