#FlexibleFirst Campaign Why #FlexibleFirst Last Updated: Apr 21, 2021

In August 2020, WACL began leading a call for organisations to commit to being #FlexibleFirst by adopting flexible working in all its forms and at scale. To support companies looking to build their foundations of flexible working and check their progress, we created a #FlexibleFirst Toolkit and case studies, alongside a Checklist backed by CMI and ISBA.  In 2021, we know the impact of a global pandemic has forced a once-in-a-generation re-examination of the ‘future of work’.

A decade of UK macroeconomic and survey data, together with our growing body of case studies developed with highly experienced business leaders, prove the business case and the benefits to the workforce.

When organisations offer genuine, two-way flexible working, this is a win-win for employers and employees alike with benefits for everyone, regardless of gender, and directly reduces the Gender Pay Gap.

#FlexibleFirst is a powerful lever for employers as they tackle two major, board-level goals: the war for talent and diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging.

Two reasons WACL is weighing in with this campaign

1. This is part of our core purpose 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. Flexible working is a proven, powerful solution for organisations to adopt now:

“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 of Equality & Human Rights Commission

2. Lockdown has demonstrated working flexibly is productive.

Our collective learning during the pandemic is that flexible (and remote) working is as productive as working 9-to-5, five days a week in an office.

It is simply the case that 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)
  • The right to request flexible working as enshrined in UK law still only applies after the first 26 weeks of employment
  • Even by the time lockdown eased in June 2020, only 22% of new roles were advertised as flexible (Timewise Flexible Jobs Index 2020)

This is despite the facts:

  • 87% (92% amongst 18-34 yr olds) of both men and women in the UK want to work flexibly (Source: Timewise Flexible Jobs Index, 2020)
  • The pandemic has clearly demonstrated how outdated, unhelpful and unnecessary it is to ask anyone to wait 26 weeks before they can request flexible working. CIPD has 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.
  • Research shows offering flexible working explicitly in job ads would increase applications by up to 30% (Behavioural Insights Team & Indeed research, March 2021)
  • The Government Equalities Office also 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.

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

Investing in designing jobs that deliver two-way flexibility;

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 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 #FlexibleFirst is not: 

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

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

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

#FlexibleFirst organisations don’t just offer remote working. They offer flexible working in all its forms: from job sharing to flexi-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 where and when employees work, and advocate for the long term flexible working environments we know are win: win for employees and companies alike.

Flexible working and remote working are sometimes – mistakenly – seen as interchangeable. Remote working means working outside a traditional office environment: working from home, a co-working space or a cafe, for example,  whereas flexible working in all its forms encompasses a lot more:

Flexible working, defined

Working arrangements which allow employees to vary the amount, timing and location of their work.

Lilian M. De Menezes & Clare Kelliher, Flexible Working And Performance. A Systemic Review of the Evidence for a Business Case, 2011

Flexible Working in all its forms includes:

Part time / Flexi-time / Home or remote working / Job-sharing / Compressed hours / Annualised hours / Term-time working / Vared-hours / Time banking / Structured time off lieu

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:

Unlocking Productivity, Performance and Potential
Fig 2 Unlocking Productivity, Performance and Potential
Fig 3 Improving Recruitment, Retention and Resilience
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)

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.

Pay employees on output, not hours

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.

Narrow the wage gap

By way of evidence,  quantitative macroeconomic modelling 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. (2018) Women’s employment patterns after childbirth and the perceived access to and use of flexitime and teleworking. Human Relations 71(1): 47-72)

The context of Covid-19

It is fair to say that anyone leading an organisation in 2020 experienced a once in a career challenge. In January 2020, no one had a pandemic response policy to pull out of the drawer; it was an unprecedented event which needed quick, brave thinkers.

Some businesses were shut down completely; the majority had to adapt overnight to the restrictions imposed and wait to see the effects on revenues and their people. Whilst we have seen very few reviews to date, the fact is that the wheels of industry generally continued to turn despite 90% of employees working from home for months on end. And despite the depressing daily headlines, most markets around the world are at 80-100% of their pre-covid levels.

The ‘pandemic penalty’ on working women

Amongst those depressing headlines are the ones that record the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on working women. A macroeconomic study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) predicts a devastating widening of the Gender Pay Gap by five percentage points within four quarters of the onset of Covid-19, which they calculate could take up two decades to recover from.

Why? Because a pandemic recession makes disproportionate and unfair demands of women. Demands that so far have played out just as NBER and similar studies – such as those carried out by Cranfield University, the House of Commons Women & Equalities Select Committee and UN Women – predicted:

  • Mothers were one-and-a-half times more likely than fathers to have either lost their job or quit since the lockdown began (Institute of Fiscal Studies, May 2020)
  • Working women spent an average of 15 hours a week more on unpaid domestic labour than men (Boston Consulting Group survey amongst 3,000 respondents in Europe & US, May 2020)
  • Mothers of two-parent households were doing, on average during lockdown, a third of the uninterrupted paid-work hours of fathers
  • 75% of men who were furloughed had their wages topped up beyond the 80% government cap provided for under the UK Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, in comparison to 65% of women who were furloughed (University of Oxford, August 2020)
  • 71% of working mothers requesting furlough were turned down by their employer during the third UK lockdown and 78% had not been offered furlough by their employer at any point during the entire pandemic (TUC survey, January 2021)

How #FlexibleFirst organisations are shaping the future of work

Many of the old myths about how best to manage workforces for optimal performance have been debunked after months of radical change. New questions are being asked about the war for talent and how to achieve the diversity and inclusion goals in a hybrid workplace. For some, it will be to ensure that their channels to market are fit for purpose; for others, it will be how to future proof what they sell.

For all, it means a rethink on how and where people work:

What will the smartest organisations offer their employees? What benefits will they put in place to ensure they attract the best talent? How will they support all of their workforce to ensure that collaboration, creativity and innovation are maximised?

What is absolutely clear is that flexible working in all its forms – remote working, flexi-time, part-time, job sharing – is a powerful lever in achieving those goals.

The future of work: how to make flexible working the norm

Respect the needs and the well being of all stakeholders.

As Channel 4’s CEO, Alex Mahon, puts it: “Employers need to think about how they can use this to facilitate the changes people want to make in their lives rather than go back to a world where we are suppressing them.” (Kantar Talks, October 2020). The data tells us that the mental health, job satisfaction and productivity of employees improves when they are empowered to work flexibly and that overwhelmingly, both men and women want to do so.

Optimise your hybrid model to make it work for everyone.

Post-Covid, the vast majority of employers are operating a hybrid model between office and remote working in order to take advantage of new working patterns that show there are benefits to both. Whilst this flexible approach is to be applauded, business leaders need to listen, learn and stay adaptive. It is unlikely that ‘one size will fit all’ and it’s critical that a two-tier workforce does not emerge: where employees working remotely are habitually excluded from key conversations or “career management by presenteeism” takes hold, for example. For ideas about how to make a hybrid model work, you can find a list of resources in our ‘further reading’ section below.

Adopt flexible working in all its forms.

Flexibility means so much more than hybrid working between office and remote; to reap the benefits discussed here, organisations should offer flexi-time, part-time hours and job sharing too.

Don’t wait for new legislation to force the issue.

Start advertising roles as flexible by default and listening to employee requests from day one. As Direct Line’s Brand Director, Kerry Chilvers, argues: “empower managers now to say ‘yes’ not ‘no’ to requests for flexible working.”

Make male flexible working role models a cultural and accepted norm.

Achieving this will help lift the residual stigma (that flexible working is ‘just’ a concession for working mothers) and lift the burden on working women, who carry more than their fair share of the unpaid carer roles in their households and community on top of their ‘day jobs’. Witness the positive step forward offered by the likes of Volvo Car’s Family Bond policy and Joint’s Equal Parenting Gap research, which shares three actions to address the gap between the number of fathers wanting to share parenting leave and those who actually do (clue: parenting needs to be ungendered).

And finally, measure performance on the basis of output and outcomes, not hours.

As the founder of Mumsnet and Gransnet, Justine Roberts puts it: “A results-only work environment is the way to go, where we look at outputs, not hours. It’s really odd that firms “own” your hours, why not own your outputs? It’s a much more progressive approach.”

[Add existing Checklist and How Page buttons here, as per current page design] [Add a separate Further Reading section at the very bottom of the Why page, as follows:]