Flexible working policies: a comparative review

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In December 2008, the Equality and Human Rights Commission commissioned the Institute for Women’s Policy Research to examine the impact of the UK ‘Right to Request, and Duty to Consider, Flexible Working’ on gender equality and the access to quality flexible working for both men and women. It was asked specifically to compare this with the impact of flexible working statutes in other countries. Of particular interest are the experiences of countries such as Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands where flexible working rights are open to all employees and are not, as in the UK, targeted at employees with childcare or care-giving responsibilities. The review further assesses employers’ experience with flexible working laws and reviews policies and best practice initiatives aimed at encouraging the transformation of work.


Statutory approaches to workplace flexibility

The large majority of industrialised countries have some statutory regulations which make it easier for individual employees to change their working hours. Laws facilitating working time adjustments to attend education or training, or to retire gradually, are also common, but are not covered in detail in this report.

In the majority of countries, as in the UK, laws are specific to employees caring for their children or dependent adults. In many countries, this takes the form of part-time work during parental leave, an option not available to UK parents. Many countries also have a right to reduced hours for parents after parental leave.

Four countries provide a right to alternative work arrangements for all employees, irrespective of their reasons for seeking change. However, with the exception of the Netherlands, such universal rights are additional to flexible working rights for parents and carers.

A separate legal model has been used in Australia, where carers are a protected category under Human Rights Discrimination Law. In two states, New South Wales and Victoria, laws specify that employers have reasonably to accommodate requests from carers for alternative work arrangements. This principle has similarly been established through European and UK sex discrimination case law. 

Statutes elsewhere focus on the full-time/part-time dimension; the UK Right to Request includes how many hours an employee works and when and where they do so. Unlike in the UK, most statutes explicitly include rights to request an increase in working hours.

In all countries, employers may refuse flexible working requests on business grounds, but the UK 'soft' approach to flexible working, which does not allow a substantive challenge in court of employer business reasons for a refusal, is unique.

Access to flexible working in other countries is more likely to be governed by collective bargaining and workplace agreements than in the UK.

Access to flexible working in practice

Policy objectives for flexible working statutes differ

As in the UK, in many countries, flexible working statutes were introduced to increase labour force participation, particularly for mothers, and to address short-term and long- term labour shortages. Yet in many countries, such as Germany and France, laws were part of active labour market and work sharing measures and were introduced within a context of high unemployment.

Gender equality has not been the primary motivation for flexible working laws, with the exception of the Nordic countries and the Netherlands. Denmark and Sweden have used tax and benefit policies, combined with extensive childcare provision, to encourage women’s return to full-time work; part-time work among mothers has fallen significantly.

Change to the availability of flexible working

The UK benefits from extensive trend data on flexible working. This is much less the case in other countries and makes cross country comparisons of the impact of different laws difficult. The latest available German data on the part-time law were collected while the German economy was still in recession.

Various UK surveys show that the availability of flexible work options has increased since the introduction of the Right to Request; that it has been successful in opening access to flexible working options which do not lead to a reduction in salary, such as flexitime; and that both men and women are requesting flexible working, although 

women are much more likely to make requests for childcare reasons. Part-timers have been particularly likely to (successfully) request flexible working.

Countries with universal rights to part-time work have not seen a higher take-up of flexible working from men than the UK. Where reduced hours work is available as part of parental or Sabbatical leave (as in Belgium), men are highly likely to choose a 20 per cent reduction; fathers who reduce hours for childcare reasons are also more likely to share other domestic work.

Gaps in knowledge

Despite the wealth of trend data on flexible working in the UK, there are several gaps: survey data are lacking on the nature or success rate of requests for flexible working from carers or from disabled people. No data are collected on requests for increased hours from part-timers, unlike in Germany and the Netherlands. Data suggest that men are less likely to make successful requests than women, but are too limited to indicate the reasons for this.

There are no data on the consequences of refused requests for flexible working, either for men or women. A Dutch survey found that following a refusal, three-quarters of employees left their job, and a fifth of those who stayed, performed worse. Likewise, there are little data on the consequences of a successful request (or indeed an unsuccessful one) in terms of level of seniority, career advancement, job content or pay.

Available research is ambivalent on the impact on the full-time/part-time pay gap, with some sources suggesting no change and others a slight narrowing. It is also not clear whether the Right to Request has been successful in reducing the need for those who want to cut their work hours to change jobs. At least one survey suggests that the large majority of returning mothers still change jobs when they want to move from full-time to part-time work.

Slow progress in managerial jobs

Employees in managerial jobs in all countries reviewed are less likely to request reduced hours, and when they do, they are less likely to succeed. Flexible working statutes are playing a role in changing this, but need to be supported by broader policy measures to challenge working time norms in senior positions. 

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