A proposal to overhaul flexible working laws in the UK has just been announced by the government

As Laura Farris MP writes for Marie Claire, if passed, this new freedom could have "transformative implications" for women in particular.

Woman working from home on laptop
Flexible working laws in the UK: The government is proposing a change

As Laura Farris MP writes for Marie Claire, if passed, this new freedom could have "transformative implications" for women in particular.

The conversation about flexible working isn't a new one, but it's been accelerated far beyond expectation due to the coronavirus. And now, it seems, the government is taking steps towards doing something about it.

After the majority of the UK workforce was given the freedom to work from home and manage their time more autonomously throughout the past 18 months, flexibility is something many people are now keen to maintain long-term. In fact, as Marie Claire research published earlier this month showed, a substantial proportion of women in the workplace - those who have children, and those of childbearing age who don't - believe the ability to work flexibly is now a non-negotiable.

Over half of women (52%) surveyed by Marie Claire and LinkedIn said they would turn down a job offer if the company didn’t offer the flexible working they required to maintain a work/life balance. While almost as many (50%) said they would quit a job they already had if it didn’t offer them what they needed flexibility-wise. So it's refreshing to see new government proposals announced today that seek to enhance many workers' right to request flexible working.

The Future of Work: Flexible working - Marie Claire x LinkedIn survey

Under the proposed new law, British workers would have the entitlement to request flexible working from day one of employment, as opposed to waiting the six months that's currently mandated.

The potential legislation would also seek to reduce the current three-month period an employer has to consider any request, reflecting the fact that flexible working must be treated as more of a priority going forward. It would also set out that if an employer couldn't accommodate an application for flexible working, they'd need to think about what alternatives they could offer instead.

Laura Farris MP, who also serves as co-chair of the Women & Work APPG, has written for Marie Claire, detailing why she feels this new law, if passed, could be very beneficial for UK workers - and working women, in particular:

"The Government today launches its consultation on whether to make the right to request flexible working a ‘Day 1’ right of employment, rather than having to wait the current six months. If enacted, this could have transformative implications for women’s employment.In the year and a half that I have co-Chaired the Women & Work All Party Parliamentary Group with Jess Philips MP, flexible working has been by far the most important and prevalent request.Time and again we have heard from women who left the workplace at the end of maternity leave because they were stuck in a rigid 9-5 or couldn’t afford the cost of childcare. Like me, many who were working with young kids had chosen part-time roles, sometimes in completely different sectors that were well below their skills and capability, in order to better accommodate their family life. This is an obvious waste of talent.Flexible working changes all this. Whilst employers of course have the right to set the terms, there are a variety of potential options on offer – from compressed hours to job shares, flexitime to working from home.

home working set up with laptop

This means that there will be vanishingly few workplaces where some form of flexibility could not be accommodated. And all of these arrangements offer employees greater autonomy over their working patterns and enable them to better balance their commitments at home and at work.Significantly, it means women are far more likely to stay on their career paths as their families evolve, with all the opportunities for later progression and promotion that that entails.The evidence shows unequivocally that flexible working is the most valued workplace benefit after pay, most recently illustrated by research published by the Government Equalities Office which saw a 30% increase in applications for any job that is offered on a flexible basis. In Marie Claire and LinkedIn's research, 83% of women surveyed said that working from home more would benefit their mental health.If new laws say that an employee can ask to work flexibly from that start, it is obvious that employers will wish to make this clear in job adverts so that the best applicants will gravitate towards them. This will create its own internal market where the resistant employer – with fixed ideas about presenteeism and the 9-5 – will bear the consequences when they can no longer attract the best.The benefits are also not confined to women. If taken up by men, this sets the stage for a more equitable distribution of childcare and domestic duties in the home.The “childcare disparity” which the appeal courts use as a shorthand for the disproportionate role of women in the home, could become a thing of the past. It also offers older employees routes to remain in the workplace for longer, phasing in the transition from work to retirement.This consultation is the start of what I hope will be a permanent shift in working patterns. The long grind of the commute, the race home to make nursery closing time and the cost-benefit analysis that has seen the attrition of so many women from their jobs could be fundamentally recalibrated. We have an opportunity to transform the workplace, let’s harness it." 

Catriona Harvey-Jenner

Cat is a Senior Editor at Marie Claire, covering news and features across the brand's key purpose pillars, including women's issues, politics, career, mental health, female empowerment and equality, as well as books.