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Tuesday 23 March 2021

Home and away: the future of flexible working

By Alison Moore

Homeworking during the pandemic has been a mixed blessing for many women managers. MiP's International Women's Day webinar examined how we can shape the future of flexible working so it works for women as well as their employers.

The last year has seen an unprecedented number of people – including many NHS managers – working predominately from home. While some have benefited, many women have struggled to combine homeworking with childcare and other caring responsibilities, and feel work demands have intruded on their private lives. As we start to think about the post-pandemic workplace, we need to consider how flexible working can be designed to benefit employees as well as employers. 

Speakers at MiP’s webinar on the future of flexible working, held to mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, expressed mixed feelings about the models of flexible working NHS managers have experienced over the last year. 

“There’s a real possibility that covid has changed the world of work forever,” said MiP vice chair Sandie Belcher. “Suddenly working from home and flexible working have become accessible to millions of people for the first time.” Employers could now see that working from home did not adversely affect productivity, she added. 

But there is a downside, too, she explained, with 72% of mothers having to cut their working hours because of increased childcare responsibilities during the pandemic. “In many two-person heterosexual households, women have been left literally holding the baby while their partners continue to work,” she said, and that could have an ongoing impact on their career progression. 

Imposed homeworking

“What we have at the moment is not true flexible working,” added Sue Coe, senior policy officer at the TUC. “It’s imposed homeworking, especially for women who have been forced to pick up the majority share of homeschooling.”

Pointing to a poll of 50,000 working mothers, which found more than 90% felt their mental and physical health had suffered during the pandemic, Coe said: “Almost half of these women were worried about being treated negatively by their employers because of their responsibilities.”

Belcher described how some MiP members felt they had benefited from more flexible working and wanted to be able to continue after the pandemic. MiP’s head of operations, Helen Carr, pointed out that working from home gave staff the flexibility to work from different parts of the country – and even from different countries – which could help people to fit their working hours around caring responsibilities. 

The right to be turned down

Under existing law, employees have a right to request to flexible working arrangements but employers don’t have to grant them. This was basically just a “right to be turned down”, Coe said. Research by the TUC in 2019 showed that one in three requests were rejected, and the law offers employers a wide range of reasons for turning down flexible working requests, without any formal right to appeal, she explained. 

“We know there is an assumption in senior jobs that there is a long hours culture… that these jobs can’t be done flexibly or part-time,” she said. As a result, women are disproportionately represented in part-time jobs but there were few quality part-time jobs available. 

“It’s really clear that we need a complete shift around the culture for flexible working” which “far too often” has been “doled out” to an individual rather than being seen as a positive way of ensuring everyone could contribute, Coe explained. She called for employers to assess the potential for flexible working before jobs are advertised, so it is clear from the start what options are available. “We feel that would shift the emphasis away from an individual worker requesting flexible working as a favour,” she added. 

But flexible working is about much more than just homeworking. A genuine programme for flexible working needs to consider the needs of staff who cannot work from home – perhaps because they’re in jobs that require them to work at a particular site, or they don’t have the space at home to work effectively. Employers need to look beyond homeworking to things like compressed hours and giving staff more control over their shifts, MiP’s Helen Carr suggested. 

Guilty secrets

Flexible working also involves recognising that all staff – regardless of gender – can have caring responsibilities, explained Marie-Pierre Moreau, professor of education at Anglia Ruskin University. She described her research on workplace equality in the education sector, which found that academics were traditionally seen as people without any caring responsibilities, who were available for work at any time. People with caring responsibilities often kept them “invisible”, she said, with one PhD student Moreau had interviewed describing their family as a “guilty secret.” 

Speakers also discussed how flexible working arrangements during the pandemic had left some people feeling they had to be constantly available for work, and that their private lives were being colonised by their work. 

“We’ve seen the increase in working hours among those working from home. It’s almost as if people are replacing commuting time with work,” said Coe. “Women may have flexibility to work from home but they have to fit so much in.” Many women ended up working in the evening after their children were in bed, she explained, and homeworkers also needed access to compressed hours and part-time working.

Even where caring responsibilities were recognised by employers, “all carers are equal but some are more equal than others,” warned Professor Moreau. In higher education, for example, she explained that many support staff were employed by outsourcing companies and didn’t have the same access to the benefits of flexible working as staff employed by the university. 

“If you don’t actually fit into this narrow figure of an academic, if you’re marginalised, you risk being even more marginalised if you’re a carer,” she warned. Women in senior positions felt they could not talk about being a carer because it would be seen as unprofessional, she said. Carr added that, while men are often applauded for going to their children’s events, it raised eyebrows when women did the same. 

Changing workplace culture

To widen the benefits and opportunities offered by flexible working in the future, Professor Moreau urged unions and employers to work together and make use of research-influenced interventions at all levels of an organisation. Flexible working and arrangements to help staff cope with caring responsibilities should be about changing workplace culture rather than just addressing the particular needs of individual staff, she said. Coe pointed out that this has started to happen in some places, such as Zurich Insurance, which has recently made all posts open to flexible working

Moreau also pointed out that the increased role of women in the workplace had not led to the hoped-for redistribution of domestic duties, and that needed to be addressed if gender equality was ever to be achieved.

MiP vice chair Sandie Belcher said MiP would take the issues raised in the webinar forward and encouraged more members to get involved and contribute to the debate.  “It is only by facing the challenge head on that we can make progress,“ she said.


  • MiP wants to help shape the future of flexible working in the NHS. Send your comments and suggestions to us at info@miphealth.org.uk.

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