UK: Opportunities for flexible working are increasing

Opportunities for flexible working are widely available in the UK and employers’ enthusiasm for the concept is increasing, a survey has shown. However, the government-funded survey has also provided a mixed picture of the awareness of these opportunities and of the use of recent statutory provisions in this area.

In December 2014, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills published a research paper presenting findings from a government-funded 2013 survey on work–life balance. This article summarises key findings in the areas of:

  • flexible working practices;
  • maternity, paternity and parental leave;
  • implementing flexible working and leave arrangements; 
  • employer attitudes towards work–life balance practices.

About the survey

A baseline survey on work–life balance was carried out in 2000 and further surveys of employers were conducted in 2003 and 2007. A fourth such employer survey was carried out between May and September 2013 by IFF Research working with the Institute of Employment Studies. The survey sampled workplaces in Great Britain with five or more employees. More than 2,000 interviews were conducted with senior HR managers or general managers. The survey focused on the use of work–life balance practices and employer perceptions of their impact. Data were weighted to ensure the survey findings were representative of all workplaces with five or more employees and of all employees in these establishments.

Flexible working practices

The use and availability of flexible working has grown since the 2007 survey but not significantly. The report states that this is partly because flexible working is widely established. In 2013, nearly all workplaces offered at least one form of flexible working. The most popular forms were:

  • part-time working (97% of workplaces);
  • working reduced hours for a limited period (88%);
  • job-sharing (72%);
  • flexitime (64%).

The report shows that:

  • the availability of flexible working arrangements increased according to establishment size and when there was a union presence in the workplace;
  • public and voluntary sector organisations tend to offer a larger number of flexible working arrangements than private sector companies;
  • availability of flexible working practices was also higher in establishments with a higher proportion of women employees, although the causal relationship was unclear.

For all forms of flexible working, employee perceptions of their availability in their workplaces (as measured by a parallel work–life balance employee survey in 2011) were substantially lower than employer-stated provision.

The proportion of workplaces that had received requests from employees to work flexibly over the previous 12 months was the same as in the 2007 survey – 40%. Most employers were able to agree to the requests received, only 9% having turned any down.

Managers in 51% of workplaces were aware of the extension in 2009 of the right to request flexible working to include workers with children under the age of 17; smaller establishments had the lowest levels of awareness.

Maternity leave

The proportion of workplaces in which at least one employee had taken maternity leave in the previous two years increased from 32% in 2007 to 39% in 2013.

Overall, 13% of workplaces paid occupational maternity pay (beyond the statutory maternity pay requirements) compared to 14% in 2007. This was more likely in larger establishments, the public sector and unionised workplaces.

There was an increase in schemes to help mothers return to work. The proportion of workplaces providing retraining increased from 47% in 2007 to 65% in 2013, and the proportion offering ‘keep-in-touch’ schemes rose from 44% to 63%. Over two-thirds (68%) said they operated a phased return process (a new question in the 2013 survey).

Just over half of the workplaces where at least one employee had taken maternity leave in the previous two years had experienced mothers wanting to move from working full time to part time on their return. This was reportedly accommodated in all or nearly all cases, and the women were able to keep their existing jobs. However, 10% of workplaces had experienced difficulties in keeping jobs open for employees returning from maternity leave.

Paternity leave

In 37% of workplaces, male employees had become parents within the last two years. Nearly all of these workplaces (36% of the total) had dealt with a male employee taking time off due to the birth or expected arrival of a child. This figure had increased significantly since 2007, when the proportion was 29%.

A quarter of all workplaces (27%) offered extra paternity leave beyond the statutory two-week minimum – a considerable increase over the 18% that did so in 2007. The average length of this occupational paternity leave was 4.8 weeks, although the most commonly stated length of leave was two weeks. However, the proportion of workplaces offering occupational paternity pay (17%) remained similar to the 2007 figure (19%).

Only 1% of workplaces had some employees who had taken advantage of the statutory additional paternity leave provisions over the last two years. In most cases where this leave had been taken, fewer than the maximum 26 weeks had been used.

Close to three-quarters (71%) of workplaces reported that adoptive primary carers and their partners received the same maternity and paternity benefits that they provided for birth parents.

Parental and special leave

A minority of establishments (33%) were aware of the change in legislation that came into force in March 2013, increasing the amount of unpaid parental leave that parents can take from 13 to 18 weeks. However, broken down by size of establishment, the survey data showed that a majority of workplaces with 50 or more workers knew about the change. 

Over two-thirds (68%) of workplaces said that ll parents were able to request unpaid parental leave. In 15% of workplaces, the right was restricted to those parents with the statutory right to request it.

Overall, in 14% of workplaces a member of the workforce had taken unpaid parental leave to look after their children in the previous 12 months – a figure unchanged from 2013. Reflecting statutory provisions, nearly all workplaces said they would 'almost always' or 'sometimes' allow staff to take time off work to care for a family member or dependent.

Implementing flexible working

Just over half of workplaces (52%), covering 73% of employees, had a written policy dealing with flexible working. Larger and public sector establishments and those with a union presence were more likely to have a policy in place. But 74% of workplaces had no set procedure for assessing requests for flexible working, and many said requests were treated differently depending on the circumstances.

In 32% of establishments, the line manager or supervisor made the decision about flexible working requests; in another 30%, a person with HR responsibility took the decision. In 28% of workplaces, it depended on the situation. Some 55% of workplaces had not provided any training on how to manage individuals making use of flexible working arrangements.

Employer attitudes

Compared with the findings of the 2007 survey, there had been an increase in positive views among interviewees concerning the impact of flexible working on matters such as employee commitment, employee relations, absence reduction, labour turnover, recruitment and productivity.

As in the previous three surveys, there was a strong link between positive views about flexible working and the number of flexible working policies offered by the employer. The report noted that it is difficult to know whether this is due to employers appreciating the positive impact of flexible working practices, having had greater direct experience of them, or due to employers with positive attitudes towards flexible working practices being more likely to offer them.

Over half (56%) of employers said that the impact of flexible working arrangements was very or fairly positive, compared to just 9% reporting that they had a negative impact.


Work–life balance and flexible working are areas in which there has been frequent and substantial regulatory change under successive governments. This survey offered the opportunity to assess the impact of legislation introduced since the previous, 2007 survey. The results provide a mixed picture.

It is a cause for concern that only slightly over half of managers interviewed were aware of the extension of the right to request flexible working to parents of older children in 2009. However, reported levels of managerial acceptance of such requests continued to be high. A minority of workplaces were aware of the 2013 increase in the amount of unpaid parental leave available, and the take-up of the additional paternity leave provisions introduced in 2011 was very low indeed. More positively, the survey’s findings on employer attitudes towards maintaining a good work–life balance suggest a growing acceptance among managers of the case for flexible working.


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