Guest blog: We should all be happy to talk about flexible working - By Sir Brendan Barber - Chair - ACAS


Acas is very pleased to be part of the government’s flexible working taskforce, which aims to change attitudes to alternative patterns of work. One of the most welcome shifts in workplace culture would be to create working environments in which we can all say we are ‘happy to talk flexible working’.

But how can this be achieved?

Lessening the load

It’s worth taking a good hard look at modern working life. It is telling that the CIPD’s Health and Wellbeing at Work Report (2019) shows that stress is on the increase again, with 37% or organisations seeing an increase in stress-related absence, and nearly three-fifths seeing an increase in the number of mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression. Is modern working life proving too much for many of us and, if so, what can be done?

 The report found that the chief culprit in the current stress endemic is heavy workloads (62%). Work intensification is a reoccurring workplace theme, particularly with regard to the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Technology may allow us to get more work done, but it also allows managers to put up our KPIs and performance targets. This was brought home in our own research on the subject, ‘Mind over machines: new technology and employment relations’.

 We found that although new technology has “shifted threats away from physical health”, by replacing many dangerous or physically exerting tasks, it has increased the risk to mental health by increasing stress through work intensification and social isolation. Of course, working flexibly does not protect you from the ‘always on’ culture that can be so stressful. But having a say in your working pattern does allow you to regain a sense of control over that all important work-life balance.

 Listening to the views of employees

So what do workers want? We carried out a poll and asked them what the priorities were for their working lives. Workers picked ‘balancing work and home life’ (53%); ‘staying healthy and feeling well’ (51%); and ‘job security’ (44%) as their top three. But when it comes to how they see these concerns being reflected in actual change in the workplace, the story is very different:

 ·  The majority of workers (63%) think flexible working arrangements will stay about the same in the next year

·   Fewer than half of workers (46%) agree that mental health will be taken as seriously as physical health by their employers in 2019

 The same workers said that the top priorities for their workplaces were ‘getting the right people with the right skills’ (53%), ‘productivity’ (36%) and ‘technological change’ (36%).

 Workers do seem to have a good sense of what their employers need and what will be discussed in the board room. But they appear rather sceptical about the pace of change when it comes to the issues most important to them, such as more opportunities to work flexibly.

Are employers so focussed on skills, productivity and the latest technology that they are failing to see that the way to achieve all three may be through smarter, flexible working that looks after and motivates staff?

From an Acas perspective, the Holy Grail of employment relations has always been to get employers to make the connection between fair and enlightened workplace practices and increased job satisfaction and business success. This means being able to join the dots between what you are required to do by law and what makes sense to do in practice – because it’s good for the business and good for the people who work for you. I am convinced that flexible working provides us with one of these critical links.