Flexible trend: Achieving the ideal work/life balance

A change in the law has given all employees the right to ask for flexible working. What does it mean for the financial services industry, and is it the death knell for the ‘culture of presenteeism’?

The extension of the statutory right to request flexible working to all employees is another step towards the Government’s goal of creating a work environment “fit for the 21st century” – but some significant hurdles still need to be cleared.

In the City, a ‘culture of presenteeism’, and a very real fear that career progression will be hampered by working flexibly or part time, still stands in the way of achieving true work/life balance.

As of 30 June this year, all employees have the legal right to request flexible working – not just parents of children under the age of 17 and registered carers as has previously been the case. Employees must have at least 26 weeks’ continuous service with the same employer and have not made another request within the previous 12 months. Employers are now legally obliged to deal with such requests in a “reasonable manner” and to provide a valid reason if the request is not granted.

The number of Citymothers & Cityfathers members
The law has been welcomed by Louisa Symington-Mills, Founder of Citymothers & Cityfathers, which provide peer support for City employees seeking to balance their careers with family life.

She notes, however, that the real test of the new legislation lies in the implementation.

Symington-Mills, who also works full time as the Chief Operating Officer of LPEQ, an international association of listed private equity companies, established Citymothers in November 2012 – the year Rose, the older of her two children, was born. Cityfathers was formed in April this year, and Symington-Mills continues to run both networks in her spare time.

Together the networks have more than 4,100 members, and enjoy strong support from a variety of financial institutions and organisations including RBS, Macfarlanes, PwC and M&G Investments.
"What’s practical for a three-person business is not necessarily the same as what’s practical for a huge investment bank" “Yes, there are cultural challenges in the City,” says Symington-Mills, who has worked in banking and finance for the past decade. “It is a traditional place of work – traditional meaning that, by and large, firms expect employees to be sitting at their desk every day, not even nine to five, but eight to eight in many cases.”

She says that although some City firms accept the need to eradicate the ‘culture of presenteeism’ that equates hours spent in the office with productivity, many refuse to recognise the need for change.

“Firstly, you have firms that don’t even talk about it and don’t have much interest in talking about it. Then there are other firms that talk about it an awful lot, but even among this group, there is a big disparity between those that act on it and those that just talk about it.”

Peer supportCitymothers hosts networking events at family-friendly times in the City and Canary Wharf covering topics relevant to working parents. Upcoming seminar topics include ‘The Power of Positive Parenting’ and ‘Strategies for Survival in the City’.

Acas code
Conciliation service Acas has published a code of practice to help employers understand the extension to the right to request flexible working and how to process requests.

Examples of handling requests in a reasonable manner include:

- assessing the advantages and disadvantages of the application;

- holding a meeting to discuss the request with the employee;

- offering an appeal process.
Symington-Mills recalls: “When I went back to work [after having my first child] I was very struck by … the lack of networking opportunities now that I had a young child at home. As soon as work finished, I wanted to be at home with my family. So I felt there was a clear opportunity for events to be offered during the working day, over lunch.”

Symington-Mills believes that the City will become far more accepting of the culture of flexible working once employees now in their thirties have risen to the ranks of top decision makers.

“I cannot put a timescale on it. To an extent I think you will see a natural evolution as a new generation shifts forward. For me that’s too slow – we need to try and accelerate change.

“In ten years’ time, will it be substantially more normal to work from home than it is now? I really hope so."

Big benefitsA government impact assessment on the rollout of flexible working to all employees estimates that the new policy will bring overall economic benefits of about £475m in the first ten years through increased productivity, reduced overheads, lower labour turnover and reduced absenteeism.

Of 400 business owners surveyed, 30% believed that meaningful flexible working policies would boost staff morale and enhance employee productivity.

Symington-Mills works from home two days a week. “Those can sometimes be my most productive days of the week because I can work largely uninterrupted – in the office it is all phone calls and meetings,” she says, noting that discipline is needed not to allow the smartphone or laptop to rule your life.

Successfully working from home, she says, requires “trust from the employer and discipline from the employee to ensure we don’t end up in a place in 30 or 40 years where we are all working non-stop, irrespective of where we are.”

More admin?The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) is concerned that while the new legislation is designed to be light-touch in terms of regulations, it will entail additional administration.

However, Samantha Mangwana, Partner at Slater & Gordon Lawyers, says the revised procedure for requesting and considering the right to work flexibly is a “simplification all round for employers as much as employees” as it is “far less prescriptive than the old regime.”

Mangwana, who specialises in employment and discrimination law, notes that the right to request flexible working has been in place for at least a decade – albeit restricted to parents and carers. A survey commissioned by the FSB found that four in five small firms currently offer flexible working.

However, some FSB members are concerned that problems related to dealing with multiple, conflicting requests could introduce a “negative dynamic” into the workplace. 

Mangwana says the stipulation that firms consider requests in a “reasonable manner” within three months takes into account the size of a business among other considerations.

“What’s practical for a three-person business is not necessarily the same as what’s practical for a huge investment bank, for example. So the law applies to all but what is reasonable and practical for an employer will vary depending on their size and administrative resources,” she says.

Going to tribunalThe Government has acknowledged that the change in legislation may result in an extra 150 tribunal cases every year. While this would amount to an increase of more than 50% on the 277 flexible working cases brought in 2010-11, it would still be a tiny fraction of the 190,000 total claims taken to tribunal in 2012. The number of claims plummeted following changes to employment tribunals in 2013, which included the introduction of charges of up to £950 for employees taking their case to tribunal.

Mangwana says that employers need to bear in mind that a refusal may generate a discrimination claim or even one of constructive unfair dismissal if the request is handled badly or rejected without proper consideration. In considering requests employers should be willing to negotiate, open-minded and aware of any precedents.

She views the new legislation as a “stepping stone in the right direction” that, overall, will benefit both employees and employers.

“Once people have a flexible working arrangement they are very keen to make sure they can keep them. It is likely to bind them to their employer because they might not be able to get the same arrangement if they move companies.

“It is recognition that we need a more modern workplace – but it has to work for everyone.”

Overall, Symington-Mills is also positive about the legislation, but reiterates that a change is culture is essential. “It is all very well having a flexible working arrangement but if having one means your career progression falls stone dead, then that is clearly unsatisfactory, and a real problem many City mothers struggle with. Their career either does not move forward or not at the same pace that it would have otherwise.

“The challenge for Cityfathers is different. It is more difficult for fathers to ask for flexible working as there is more of a stigma surrounding men putting in such requests.”

Published: 28 Aug 2014
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