The UK's Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Act empowers employees with increased flexibility over their work arrangements, addressing the need for more inclusive and equitable work environments.

By Adrian von Dewall
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Originally posted on LinkedIn

After 7 years of campaigning, the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Act receives Royal Assent in the UK, marking a significant milestone in the push for workplace flexibility. Anna Whitehouse, the driving force behind Mother Pukka, celebrates the bill becoming law, unlocking new possibilities for under-represented groups such as women, disabled individuals, parents, and caregivers. The bill is set to empower employees across the UK with increased flexibility over their work arrangements.

One of the standout features of the Flexible Working Act is that it grants all workers the legal right to request flexible working from day one, challenging the traditional notion that flexibility is earned only after a significant tenure. This shift addresses a genuine need, as highlighted by CIPD research, revealing that 6% of employees changed jobs last year due to a lack of flexible options, while 12% left their professions entirely for the same reason, affecting nearly 2 and 4 million workers respectively.

It has been 97 years since the "40-hour work week" was popularised by Henry Ford in 1926 and thereafter mandated by US Law in 1940. Instituted when one person typically worked in a household, this model may have made sense in an era when inflation and the cost of living were significantly lower. However, today's society grapples with increased inflation and a higher cost of living, rendering the rigid 40-hour work week impractical for many.

While the UK is making strides, the broader European Union is also recognising the importance of flexible working. The EU Directive on work-life balance aims to enhance women's participation in the labour market and promote the adoption of family-related leave and flexible working arrangements. Finland and Portugal stand out as pioneers in this regard, with their forward-thinking legislation that predates the current global discourse on flexible working.

Finland, for instance, implemented a flexible working law back in 1996, allowing employees to start or finish their day outside core working hours. A significant update in 2020 affords workers the right to choose their work location for at least 50% of the time. Portugal, on the other hand, has granted parents of young children the right to work from home without the need for extensive negotiations with employers, demonstrating a commitment to supporting the evolving needs of the workforce.

The COVID-19 pandemic served as a catalyst for change, prompting a seismic shift in the workplace landscape. Many companies, previously hesitant to embrace remote work, have come to realise that the sky won't fall if employees work from home. However, as some organisations attempt to revert to pre-pandemic norms, advocates like Anna Whitehouse persist in championing the cause of flexible working.

The broader implications of flexible working extend beyond convenience and productivity; they have the potential to narrow the gender gap in workplaces globally. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2023, it is projected to take 131 years to close this gap at the current rate of progress. Encouragingly, the Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2023 indicates that 79% of businesses are prioritising women in their diversity, equity, and inclusion programmes, signalling a positive shift towards a more inclusive and equitable future.

As we navigate this transformative era in the world of work, embracing flexible working is not just a legal mandate but a cultural shift that can unlock the full potential of a diverse and dynamic workforce. The Flexible Working Bill in the UK is a testament to progress, and as we look toward the future, it is essential for organisations worldwide to recognise the value of flexibility in fostering equality and innovation in the workplace.

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