A little less conversation, a little more legal action please

Why we need legislation around remote working

Mel Exon, WACL


As any campaigner will tell you, real behavioural change comes about when three levers work together in concert: education, legislation and conversation. The first provides the rational argument, the second sets new guardrails in place and, finally, it’s the conversations we have with work colleagues, friends and family that validate our new habits so they actually stick. What’s more, we know the road to cultural acceptance is rarely a predictable or linear path (the UK smoking ban in 2007 is a good case in point). Progress is often uneven and, like a dance, changeable in pace: quick, quick, slow.

TUC and Flex for All’s recent analysis of 6,000 UK workers’ responses to the UK government’s consultation on flexible working last year shows just how poorly legislation is playing its part in this case, badly lagging the progress the UK has collectively made in education and conversation.

The analysis reveals - not for the first time - how consistently well-educated UK workers are about what enables them to contribute to the UK economy and what makes them most productive and happiest at work; yes, you’ve guessed it: flexible working in all its forms. And boy, have UK workers had enough conversations about this, especially during the pandemic. Yet a separate poll conducted by the TUC and Mother Pukka amongst 13,000 working mothers recently found 50% had had their request for flexible working turned down. 

Progress is often uneven and, like a dance, changeable in pace: quick, quick, slow

Mel Exon, WACL Campaigning Chair 2021/22

This should be staggering, but the reality is this: by law, an employee may request flexible working after 26 weeks in the job. The employer then has three months to consider the request and decide whether to grant the request or decline it. As the TUC’s general secretary, Frances O’Grady, puts it: “This [BEIS] consultation must result in a change in the law, so that all jobs are advertised with flexible options clearly stated, and all workers have the legal right to work flexibly from their first day in a job.”

Instead, despite decades of research showing the benefits of flexible working both to businesses and their employees, the UK government has decided to delay legislative action around making flexible working the default, effectively stalling progress. 

Rather than ‘level up’ the UK, this inaction does the opposite. Slowing progress in employee rights where it’s most needed, and where there is most opportunity for social mobility and growth: amongst working mothers of all backgrounds, disabled workers, older workers, workers facing the harshest socio-economic conditions, not to mention men looking to share the care.

Indeed this isn’t an issue ‘just’ for women. A step forward in legislation would help eradicate what researchers in the Behavioural Insights Team call the ‘pluralistic ignorance’ amongst men when it comes to flexible working. Defined as “the tendency of people to hold a particular opinion privately, while mistakenly believing the majority of people disagree with that opinion,” BIT’s research showed that, when men mistakenly think that their colleagues and managers would disapprove if they worked flexibly, they avoid doing so, anticipating negative social and career repercussions. (Source: ‘Simply telling men that their peers support parental leave and flexible working, increases their intention to share care’, Behavioural Insights Team, June 2021).

The good news is that employers of choice are ahead of legislation and far closer to answering the needs of their employees. As WACL’s Flexible First Checklist amongst our own industry shows, the top tier of respondents gaining a Flexible First Leadership mark are now offering flexible working options as part of the interview process (‘‘ahead of Day 1 in the job’) and have flexible working and shared parental leave policies in place that are actively communicated and encouraged. 

What can be done to bring more businesses in line with this kind of progress? We simply need to see the legislation around flexible working catch up with the education and conversations already happening. You can sign the Flex for All petition here.


Image credit @ Bronac McNeill photography

Guest Author

Mel Exon, WACL


WACL Campaigning Chair 2021/22

Related Tags

Remote Working