In 1965, management consultant Christel Kammerer wanted to find a solution to a new problem facing West Germany. Businesses were experiencing mass labour shortages. The war had decimated the working population and the construction of the Berlin Wall had only deepened the crisis. Women – then largely stay-at-home mothers – were called on to enter the workforce. They were confronted with an age-old reality: balancing childcare with work was near impossible.
Kammerer penned an article recommending that workers should be allowed to alter their start and finish times as they wished, so long as they completed their contracted hours. Despite solving the problem, businesses were slow on the uptake. And governments even slower.
It was almost four decades later that the right to request flexible working was introduced in the UK. As a minister at the Department for Trade and Industry, I was part of the team behind it. For the first time, parents could request flexible working and their employers had to take the request seriously. In the years since, the right to request has expanded to include all workers, but only if they have worked for the same employer for at least 26 weeks.
It’s now clearer than ever that this legislation is stuck in the dark ages. During lockdown, some 65 per cent of parents and carers said they would like their future work arrangements to be extremely or very flexible. Just 1 per cent said they did not want any flexibility. The right to request now seems archaic – if the majority want it, why is it up to us to request it?
The pandemic has given us a fresh perspective on our work-life balance. Gone are the days of accepting the hour long commute five days a week. Gone are the days of trudging into the office just to show your face. We’ve been given a glimpse of a future where our time is ours and it’s actually benefitted the way we work – more than half of workers reported an uptick in productivity while working from home.
The right to request doesn’t fit with the workplace of the future. The onus for flexible working must move from the employee to the employer, and the forthcoming Employment Bill is the government’s chance to make this a reality.
New flexible working legislation must go beyond the occasional alteration of hours and some working from home. Progressive practices like job sharing must be championed as options for all. The bill is an opportunity to make a statement that has been missing in legislation past – flexible working is a right; not a privilege.
Some 50 years since Christel Kammerer first lay the groundwork for flexible working on employees’ terms, it’s a damning indictment of the state of Britain’s employment law that it’s not offered as default across the board.
Legislation has barely moved since myself and the team at the Department for Trade and Industry first introduced the right to request. The Employment Bill is an opportunity to change this. I can only hope the government steps up to the plate.
Jacqui Smith is a former home secretary and chair of Empower, a campaign working to promote the organisations, women and men who are reshaping the rules to promote female empowerment
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