The barriers to flexible working

First things first. There are some jobs that cannot be done flexibly, neither in time nor in location.  If you need to open a shop at 9.00am, then the options for flexibility will be minimal at best.  There are plenty of others roles that need to be done at particular times and at particular places too.

This blog post isn’t about those jobs.

I develop employment policy for a living (I know, but someone has to do it). For although there are plenty of organisations that claim they support flexible working and families, I have yet to see one that has published a policy that goes beyond the statutory requirements.  Most places still require employees to have six months service before they can make a formal request.  Most policies spend a whole lot of time stating the reasons why a request can be turned down and outlining process over positive action.  Policy aside, for many flexible working is still seen as something for childcare and for women.


How many organisations expressly stating in their job advertisements that flexible working is an option – or even encouraged?

How many organisations actively promote their policies and remind their employees of them on a regular basis?

How many organisations share flexible working success stories?

How many organisations encourage a discussion about flexibility or working hours at the job offer or interview stages?

How many organisations have senior leaders openly working flexibility?


There are some organisations doing good stuff. I loved the idea from UK Fast recently where they gave a day off to parents whose child was starting school for the first time.  The cost of such an initiative was probably negligible.  The benefit to those parents, imaginable.

But individual examples aside, the answer to the above questions is usually…… not enough.  Not nearly enough.

Instead when I talk to people about flexible working, I hear the same issues, over and over.

My manager doesn’t support it even though there is a policy that says we can.

I asked but was told no.

Some departments can have it and some can’t.

Home working is frowned upon.

I don’t think we allow that.

My manager doesn’t want to set a precedent.

It is felt that if everyone can’t have it no one can.

I don’t feel like I can ask.

I haven’t been there long enough to ask.


Many organisations talk the flexible working talk. They have policies and statements on websites.  But most aren’t taking the step from talking about it to promoting it, enabling it, encouraging it.

This is what we need more of. Innovative solutions.  Genuine options.  Role models.  Removal of fear.  Clear signals via policy and leadership that flexible working is a positive thing, not something to be ‘managed’ or avoided.

If you don’t trust your people to work flexibily, then you don’t trust your people.

Flexible working. It’s about retention. Talent.  Engagement.  It’s about balance, about life.

It’s about 2017.

Let’s do better.


I am delighted to be supporting CIPD Manchester’s Big Conversation about families, parents and the workplace. Check out the dedicated blog here and follow the hashtag #CIPDBigConvo. 



5 thoughts on “The barriers to flexible working

  1. Great post Gem! It’s interesting that given how long agile has been prevalent in the lexicon of organisations we are still at a point of fear to trust.

    Previously worked for an organisation where the external strategic message was “we are an agile organisation”, going so far as turn the entire central building into a large (Approx 2000 staff) open plan, hot-desk only environment, with banks of individual storage cupboards for your laptops, papers, etc and long desks capable of having six people either side.

    This was all well and good however, when the operational management of the organisation still continued to operate a ‘manage-by-seeing’ style this whole drive for agility came to a grinding halt. Conversations with staff (at all levels) taking place either side of the change showed that before the fact there was, in general, trust and belief that senior and operational management levels were working together to achieve the best for the organisation and the staff; post change there was more a feeling of strategic level being disconnected from everyone and operational level losing focus on output over appearance.

    Some senior/strategic level individuals saw this as the operational managers just not having trust in their teams but in conversations with the operational managers a lot quoted budget protection, maintaining relevance and a lack of confidence in their own leadership abilities as the main drivers behind their discomfort with people not being in the building all the time.

    In reality these reasons probably still stem from trust; the operational managers not trusting that the organisation will recognise their team’s contribution or their abilities and them not trusting their own skills and relationships with the team – which could be argued as them not trusting their teams to perform.

    The main message that came out of these discussions was not only a lack of practical skills preparation for the introduction of a whole new way of working, but beyond that an absent deeper understanding of the emotional impact this type of disruption would have on everyone involved.

    Having recently spoken to someone who still works there, improvements are being made but very slowly and the effects on retention are still being seen.

  2. One of the organisations I worked for encouraged flexible working. As the organisation grew, teams across the board started to feel the pressure and began spending more time at work. Older managers remained somewhat flexible. The newer managers, in order to strengthen their position (+fear of the unknown) would make their teams work even more. Few leaders noticed the shift and made improvements, others weren’t bothered as long as the teams were achieving results. The open culture allowed discussions around the shift in flexible work, but at the end it was all about the money.

  3. I agree. Many companies profess to being progressive, etc. in regards to flexible working but I have yet to see the trend translate into action on a widespread scale. I think flexible working can be a huge selling point when trying to attract top talent too.

  4. Nice post and a Great blog, I really appreciate your efforts and I will be waiting for your further write ups. Keep posting such kind of information on your blog. I bookmarked it for a continuous visit. Thanks for sharing this.

  5. Great article Gem! I’ve found that while most companies do have some form of flexible working policy, generally speaking, the managers who make the decisions, are themselves inflexible.

    Happened to me a couple of years ago, the company was flexible, but I unfortunately had a manager who didn’t like anyone having time off!

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