Why Flexible First

In 2020, WACL began an industry-wise campaign for flexible working, #FlexibleFirst. Now in 2022, we know there is no turning back: the impact of a global pandemic is forcing a once-in-a-generation re-examination of the future of work.

Two reasons why WACL is campaigning for flexible working

1. This is part of WACL’s core mission to accelerate gender equality.

The wholly disproportionate impact of the pandemic on working women – particularly women of colour and women with disabilities – known as the ‘pandemic penalty’ creates the urgency to act before a long term gender crisis takes hold.

2. Flexible working is productive and inclusive.

Flexible working is a powerful solution to help organisations tackle two board-level goals: attracting and retaining talent, and inclusion & diversity. If our experience during the pandemic weren’t enough to demonstrate how productive flexible working can be, a decade of UK macroeconomic and survey data, together with our growing body of blue chip case studies prove both the business case and the benefits to the workforce.

“If we further develop the new ways of working that everyone has adjusted to during the pandemic, including building more flexible working options for employees, there is a real opportunity to increase the diversity of our workforce. This will not only help businesses by harnessing a range of talents but also help reduce some of the inequality that exists in our society.”

Baroness Kishwer Falkner
Chair, Equality & Human Rights Commission

Yet reality lags perception

  • Whilst Covid-19 has driven an increase in remote working, 46% of UK employees still do not have flexible working in their current role, source: CIPD 2020)
  • Even after months of lockdown, only 26% of new roles were advertised as flexible, Timewise Flexible Jobs Index 2021
  • Although currently under review, the right to request flexible working as enshrined in UK law still only applies after the first 26 weeks in the job

Despite the facts

  • 41% reported they were more productive working from home, 28% reported they were equally productive, McKinsey ‘Reimagining the office and work life after Covid-19’, June 2020
  • 87% (92% amongst 18-34 yr olds) of both men and women in the UK want to work flexibly, Timewise UK research
  • Research shows offering flexible working explicitly in job ads would increase applications by up to 30%, Behavioural Insights Team & Indeed research March 2021
  • The pandemic has demonstrated how outdated and unnecessary it is to ask anyone to wait 26 weeks before they can request flexible working. Unison and CIPD have called for a change to UK law to make flexible working requests a ‘day-one right for all employees ’, and the Women & Equalities Select Committee are also recommending the 26-weeks’ service threshold be removed.
  • Finally, the UK Government Equalities Office has acknowledged the need for change, calling “for employers to make flexible working a standard option for employees, to help level-up the UK, boost opportunities for women and reduce geographic inequality as we recover from COVID-19.”

This is why WACL is committed to setting the industry standard with #FlexibleFirst.

Flexible working defined is a white title out of a red background. The body copy reads 'working arrangements which allow employees to vary the amount, timing or location of their work'. An info box states: Flexible working in all its forms includes: Part time / Flexi time / home or remote working / job sharing / compressed hours / annualised hours / term time working / varied house / time banking / structured time off in lieu
Fig 1 Flexible working, defined

What #FlexibleFirst means

#FlexibleFirst is designed to redress the balance from the default culture of full-time, in-office working, to one that offers choice:

Advertising 100% of jobs as flexible;

Investing in designing jobs that deliver two-way flexibility, from Day 1 in a role;

Ensuring the company culture and governance are in place to advocate for and support every form of flexible working;

Understanding and communicating the business and people benefits of genuine, two-way (suiting both the employee and the employer) flexibility;

Ensuring employee learning & development programs are in place;

Measuring and reporting the impact of flexible working on your organisation (for example productivity, performance, potential, recruitment, retention and resilience);

‘Employers of choice’ go further: they offer flexible working in all its forms and at scale. They view flexible working as an essential lever in attracting and retaining the best talent and fulfilling their diversity, inclusion and belonging goals (including closing their Gender, Ethnicity and Disabled Pay Gaps), in order to foster a culture that truly works for everyone.

What Flexible First is NOT:

Claiming to be a panacea, nor is it a single, binary solution that ignores the reality of our working lives.

The optimum approach to flexibility in terms of location is not binary or ‘either/or’: for many it’s a hybrid solution between office and remote working. All evidence points to the fact creative and collaborative cultures thrive when there is balance between the two.

Working flexibly doesn’t mean working without boundaries. The ‘rubbed sided days‘ created by working from home can become detrimental if parameters are not put in place to prevent this.

Flexible First organisations is not just about location, they offer flexibility in all its forms: from job sharing to variable hours to reduced hours. They acknowledge that one size does not fit all.

In the spirit of deeds not words, let’s turn the page on the old ways of working, set aside old biases about how employees work, and advocate for the long term flexible working environments we know are win: win for employees and companies alike.

How flexible working benefits everyone

A decade of UK historical data and our own WACL leaders’ business case studies support a robust case for the benefits of flexible working. What’s more, the context of a global pandemic has shown us once and for all that when organisations commit to two-way flexible working in all its forms, this has benefits for everyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability or socioeconomic status:

A slide with the title Unlocking Productivity, Potential, Performance in white out of red background sits above three columns of data with sources listed. White flexible first campaign logo sits bottom right.
Fig 2 Unlocking Productivity, Performance and Potential
A slide with the title Improving Recruitment, Retention, Resilience in white out of red background sits above three columns of data with sources listed. White flexible first campaign logo sits bottom right.
Fig 3 Improving Recruitment, Retention and Resilience

Alongside this, CMI and Timewise survey data tells us that this is simply what people want and expect:

  • 93% of managers said it was important for them that an employer offered blended working in the future (CMI Managers Voice Poll June 2020)
  • 87% of men and women want to work flexibly, yet 35% are either unaware or don’t feel their organisation offers the flexibility they need, and only 22% of jobs are advertised as flexible (Timewise Flexible Jobs Index 2020 & Morgan McKinley’s 2019 working hours and flexible working)
  • 59% would feel happier at work, 52% be more likely to stay with their employer (Working Families & Bright Horizons, 2020 Modern Families Index)
  • 41% reported they were more productive working from home, 28% reported they were as productive (McKinsey, Reimagining the office and work life after Covid-19, June 2020)

How flexible working helps close the gender pay gap

“The advantage of flexible or agile working is that it can benefit all employees, men and women, as well as employers. At the same time, it presents a useful solution to the problem of the part-time pay penalty, which contributes to the gender pay gap.”

House of Commons Women & Equalities Committee report, 2016

Offering flexible working in all its forms (see fig 1) allows more women into the workforce in the first place and creates the conditions for them to stay in work for longer. This gives them the opportunity to progress and earn more money by taking on more senior roles, ultimately to leadership and board level positions where the gap has always been at its worst, the ‘glass pyramid’ as CMI describes it.

When everyone’s remuneration is based upon output, not time spent in the office, more women aren’t just attracted to senior positions, they must be paid the same; helping to close the Gender Pay Gap and accelerating gender equality in the process.

By way of evidence, quantitative macroeconomic modeling conducted in August 2020 by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that “both the change in social norms and the increase in job flexibility play a quantitatively important role in narrowing the gender wage gap.”

Both the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the Government Equalities Office also cite improving flexible working as a key action to help close the gender pay gap, alongside related factors such as evaluating criteria for recruitment, development, and promotion. And finally, research conducted amongst working mothers in 2017 found a direct link between flexible working and reducing the Gender Pay Gap:

“Women who were able to use flexitime were only half as likely to reduce their working hours after the birth of their child. In the overall sample, more than half the women reduced their working hours after the birth of their child, but less than a quarter of the women who were able to use flexitime reduced their hours, with similar results for women who were able to work from home if they wanted to. This shows that, given the chance to work flexibly, many women would stay in work and maintain their hours and their pay after having children.”

Chung, H. & van der Horst, M.
‘Women’s employment patterns after childbirth and the perceived access to and use of flexitime and teleworking. Human Relations’ 71(1): 47-72, 2018

Further reading

Chartered Management Institute: Flexible Working & The Gender Pay Gap, Should Flexible Working Be a Day-One Right?, Flexible Working: A Guide for Senior Leaders & Managers

CIPD’s Flex from 1st Campaign

Women in the Workplace 2020, LeanIn & McKinsey

Diversity wins: How Inclusion Matters, McKinsey & Company

A Million New Futures, Scope

Tackling Social inequality, Timewise

Women and Equalities Select Committee report on impact of Covid-19 on women, calling for the UK government to make it easier for employees to get flexible working

How Covid-19 impacts women and girls, UN Women

The intensification of violence against women during the pandemic, UN Women

Embracing the new world of work: Management Today survey and report

Equality Act 2010

Children & Families Act 2014

About the author

Mel Exon
Mel Exon
Portfolio Non-Exec Director
WACL Campaigning Chair 2021/22
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