A few weeks ago, MP Helen Whately took an unprecedented step and introduced a flexible working bill into UK parliament.
Whately argued that the “40-hour, five-day working week made sense in an era of single-earner households and stay-at-home mums, but it no longer reflects the reality of how many modern families want to live their lives”.
“At the moment, too many women are reluctantly dropping out of work or going part-time after having children because their employers won’t allow them flexibility.”
In these few short sentences, this UK MP articulated the crux of the flexible working debate: that despite what so many companies still believe (or wish to believe), the world has moved on, women have moved into the workplace, and we all have to adjust.
It seems that unlike Australia, the UK government is alive to the fact that working flexibly should not be a luxury afforded to the lucky few — usually those in extremely senior positions or people who run their own businesses — but to everyone who has to juggle parenthood, other caring responsibilities and life.
A recent workplace report found a quarter of UK workers have refused a job due to a lack of flexibility. This number jumps to 40% for millennial workers, for whom work-life balance and flexible working is key when evaluating a job prospect.
Studies have also shown that giving mothers access to flexible work hugely decreases the likelihood they will drop out of the labour market after giving birth to their first child, as well as decreasing the likelihood that they’ll reduce their working hours after the first — or more — childbirths.
It is reports and studies such as the above, and in general, a growing awareness of the reality of most workers’ conditions, that led the UK government to announce a review of the right to flexible working earlier this year.
WORK180, of which I am the co-chief executive officer, expanded into the UK last year. We have been operational for five years in Australia already, so expanding into a different market offered us a unique perspective on not only different work cultures, but also, the strategy of each government in tackling what is increasingly becoming a desperate situation for many women and their families.
What we have found is that while the UK is, in many ways, still behind Australia when it comes to employer acceptance of the need for flexible work, the UK government has certainly recognised this as a priority — and is acting accordingly.
While in the last federal election both Labor and the Coalition also made a concerted effort to focus on women’s issues, such as closing the gender pay gap, flexible work as a separate issue is not on their radar.
The only remotely relevant policy is the Morrison government’s promise of more flexible parental-leave pay, allowing new parents to choose when they want to take their leave, as well as establishing mid-career checkpoints for 40,000 working women at a cost of $75 million.
However, the federal government should be following in the steps of the Victorian Government, which has committed to a raft of policies and changes to make working life more equitable for Victorian women.
Most importantly, the Andrews government has publicly acknowledged that reforms need to be made at a legislative level, outlining its intention to enact a gender equality act to “embed strong governance structures … and explore legislative and complementary measures” when it comes to achieving gender equality in the workplace — of which access to flexible work should be a priority.
Other than those examples, support from legislature is severely lacking in Australia, and change towards flexible work is mainly incumbent on the private sector.
At WORK180, we provide transparency for women looking to work for companies that support flexible arrangements by issuing the ‘Flex Able certification’ to organisations, following careful examination of their flexible work policies, and the rate of their actual implementation.
Some of the standouts include:
- NBN, which happily accommodates their senior manager of communications and content — and mum of two — who lives in the remote community of Yarrambat (population 1500) by allowing her to work two days from home and make other flex arrangements as needed; and
- AustralianSuper, which invests heavily in flexible working arrangements and training programs on unconscious bias, benefits of flex and kore, has recently had 94% of their employees say they have the flexibility they need.
Both companies have retained top talent by simply acknowledging that life doesn’t always fit neatly into a 9-to-5 bracket. So why can’t the federal government do the same?
And while we see many other examples of organisations trying to do the right thing by their employees, unless the government steps in and actually legislates for flexibility to become the default — just as in the UK — the change will be incremental at best.