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Why employers need a more flexible approach to retaining talent

Employees are increasingly expecting to work in a more flexible way. For employers who can adapt to this style of working there is much to gain in terms of attraction and retention. But with employment legislation not reflecting workplace culture, is it up to employers to drive this change?

Employees are increasingly expecting to work in a more flexible way. For employers who can adapt to this style of working there is much to gain in terms of attraction and retention. But with employment legislation not reflecting workplace culture, is it up to employers to drive this change?

Flexible working has been part of our employment law framework for many years now. As the diversity of the UK labour market has increased, many more people with different lives and backgrounds want to work in a way that suits them and the people in their lives. This is something many workers are now no longer willing to compromise on when looking for a job or moving between roles.

Among Business Disability Forum (BDF) members, offering flexibility on a day to today basis – not just promoting the right to request statutory flexible working – is a key factor of what makes employers attractive competitors. Further still, greater awareness on neuro-differences and how different brain types work better at different hours of the day outside of ‘traditional’ 8am-6pm working hours means that people are now more easily findings jobs where such flexibility and personal working preferences can be afforded by employers, particularly due to the number of UK based employers who have global functions and are looking for people who want to work outside of traditional UK ‘office’ hours. Given this, there now really is a place for the ‘larks’ (people who work well earlier in the mornings) and the ‘owls’ (those who work well late into the night) if employers are willing to develop their culture this way.

Employment legislation, however, lags behind. Even the upcoming flexible working law goes nowhere near the level of flexibility today’s workforce needs and, as above, can demand from prospective employers. The change in law will mean that workers can request flexible working from Day 1. This is great, but it means candidates will not be able to get flexibility secured before they actually start a job. Employees will be able to make two requests for flexible working per year, but this still isn’t enough for when lives change so rapidly and in different ways during a 12-month period. For example, employee who have experienced, poor health followed by the onset of disability, a relationship breakdown, a child needing the parent’s (the employee’s) support with school for an acute period, beginning to care for a relative, and/or experiencing a bereavement.

All of these ‘life events’ were unpredictable. For this reason, when we consulted with employees, they told us that if their employer only offered statutory flexible working – even using the upcoming two request per year entitlement – it would not have made work flexible enough for them to continue in that job. It goes back to what we told the Government at the time they were consulting on the then proposed changes to flexible working: flexible working just is not flexible enough. This is why so many of our members rely on non-statutory flexible working to support and attract employees.

But, more than anything else, the key thing employees say they value from their employer and helps them manage both work and life alongside one another is a culture of flexibility, based on trust between employee and employers, whereby if something happens today, an employee is afforded both the compassionate understanding and the space to, for example, leave early and make up the time another day. And, of course, this benefits employees who are working with disabilities and long-term conditions as well.

In BDF’s recent research, The Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey 2023, 47 per cent of disabled employees said they work flexibly or with adjusted hours to help manage their conditions. But the key issue here, which BDF will be working on to promote among BDF members during the coming months, is that employees who need to work flexibly because of a disability should not be using flexible working policies to requests this. They should instead be using workplace adjustment policies. This is the difference between ‘flexible working’ and ‘flexible working as a reasonable adjustment’. Many employers who are informed about flexible working as an adjustment have expanded this and developed an understanding throughout their organisation’s culture where anyone – not just disabled employees – can ask for adjustments to make life at work and at home easier. It’s not flexible working per se, it’s just flexibility. This approach says to a workforce, ‘Life can be hard, and we want to make it easier for you’.

It’s an attractive prospect for job seekers, that an employer meaningfully values the flexibility needed to manage life’s unpredictability, and that employers show understanding, support, and space to employees to help them keep managing work and life at the same time without compromising their mental, physical or psychological health or their commitment to their job. Employers have much to gain from offering flexibility which goes beyond the legal requirement.

Findings from the Great Big Workplace Adjustment Survey 2023

Business Disability Forum

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