I read my first report on flexible working back in 2003 when I was researching how we might start operating longer opening hours in our call centre. I’m reminded of this today as the CIPD have just released their Employee Outlook report on Commuting & Flexible Working. It has a remarkably familiar ring to it. What has undoubtedly changed in the intervening 13 years is that the numbers of people now working flexibly and the numbers of businesses offering some form of flexible working have risen steadily. The CIPD report states that, currently, 70% (from a small sample of 1,071 people) use at least one form of flexible working. In preparing to write this post I went back over a number of reports from a number of august and well meaning commissions and organisations from the last decade or so, and they all reach much the same conclusions: flexible working is good for employees and good for business. They all also note the same barriers to increasing availability and uptake: a culture of presenteeism and management attitudes. They all also make the same recommendations: attitudes must change and the Government must do more.
I started to type a sentence that went “the evidence is compelling” but it’s not. If it was attitudes would have changed. Faced with incontrovertible proof, they haven’t. If it was, ministers would have been compelled to do more. And this at a time of increasing mental and physical health problems, of increasing pressure on transport and infrastructure, of economic and productivity stagnation, of fast-paced technological change. The present government seem wilfully to be ignoring the proof as shown in the shameful way they are imposing new contracts in the health service. Public awareness campaigns that encourage employees to approach their employers are like prodding poor Oliver Twist in the back, pushing him in front of the formidable Mr. Bumble, bowl outstretched to ask again “Please Sir, I want some more”. And when the Government does provide, in the form for example of the living wage, employers use it as an excuse to remove other benefits. And a lack of flexibility falls hardest not in the towers of Canary Wharf or the Georgian townhouses of Mayfair but on those who might need it most – working parents; carers for sick relatives; people in further education struggling to avoid debt; people with health problems and elderly people forced to work later in life because of changes to the pension regime. In call centres, warehouses, workshops, factories, supermarkets, garages, coffee shops, pubs, light industrial parks, care homes and hospitals. On the people who make this country work. All of them dutiful taxpayers. Against a backdrop of, however legal, tax avoidance by some of our biggest employers (including some of the media outlets that rail against such practices).
The contribution most people want to make to society does not stop at paying taxes. It does not lie in being a compliant, uncomplaining corporate unit of production. Meaning and purpose are more often found elsewhere – being able to spend time with your family before and after school and at weekends; caring for sick relatives; community projects; volunteering; hobbies; art; literature; sport and exercise; science and nature. And to do these things without work intruding. Or without the fear that the empty chair or the out-of-office message are bells tolling the loss of your job.
Maybe I’m too much of an idealist. Maybe the slow inexorable wave motion of time will wear down resistance to these things. Maybe I’m in a hurry because I’d like to see my son and daughter and their friends enter the world of work with a sense of anticipation at the opportunities it affords instead of dread at the opportunities it might crush.
But, why wait?
You can download the CIPD report here