Why don’t men choose flexible working?

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Fed up with commuting? Want to carry on working while participating in your children’s lives or helping care for elderly relatives? Then flexible working could be the answer.

Yet many workers baulk at asking their employers if they can work flexibly. And it seems men, in particular, don’t like stepping off the nine to five treadmill. Why is this and why should men and women request flexible working?

Your rights

All employees have the right to ask their employer for flexible working as long as they have worked for their employer for at least 26 weeks. To do this, you need to make a statutory application in which you make your case for flexible working. You can be turned down but you have a right of appeal.

Professor Sir Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at the ALLIANCE Manchester Business School at the University of Manchester says that probably half of all employees in the UK have the kind of jobs where they could work flexibly, yet probably only about 15% do so.

And a survey by Powwownow last year found that while 58% of workers are offered flexible working, 24% don’t make use of it. But while 6% more men than women are offered flexible working, 34% of women are more likely to ask for flexible working rather than a pay rise than men.

Professor Cooper says: ‘We did a study looking at one large public sector body and one large global private company. We wanted to find out if men take flexible work and if not, why not. What we found was that men apply for flexible working far less than women. They didn’t apply because they were worried that if they did opt for flexible working, it would impact on their careers’.

Gender differences

Professor Cooper adds that the study found that women did also worry about their careers and how they would be impacted by flexible working. But women found it easier to request flexible working ‘because employers perceived that women have a more caring role in society so it seemed easier to ask for it’ says Professor Cooper.

He adds: ‘I think that one of the reasons why men don’t choose flexible working is they find it difficult to let go. And you should also remember that some people just don’t want to work flexibly. They like the division of home and work: with flexible working, those lines are blurred and your work could intrude into your home life. But a man might, for example, want to go to the office from Monday to Thursday but say I want to work from home on Friday because I want to take my children to school and pick them up after.’

A study by the University of Kent’s Dr Heejung Chung working with Dr Mariska van der Horst from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam found that flexible workers do tend to do more unpaid overtime with professional men putting in an extra hour’s free work a week and part-time working mothers working 20 minutes unpaid overtime a week. 

Flexible working works

While there’s lots of evidence that flexible working works, uptake has stalled. A report earlier this year from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development Megatrends: Flexible Working found that the number of employees opting for flexible working has ‘flat-lined’ since 2010 even though the right to request it has been open to all employees since 2014.

The Flexible Working Task Force, a group made up of representatives from government departments, business groups, trade unions and charities, is campaigning to increase uptake of flexible working.

Peter Cheese, CIPD chief executive and co-chair of the task force says: ‘Providing more flexible opportunities for how, when and where people work should be part of every organisation’s strategy to attract and retain the talent and skills they need. Employers need to consider and address the barriers holding them back from adopting flexible working practices more widely, be in entrenched organisational cultures or making sure line managers are trained to support and manage flexible workers’.

Professor Cooper adds: ‘Every organisation will have a menu of flexible working options but how many employees – male or female – take it up does depend on whether senior management believes in it. Our study – and our ongoing research – shows that companies should promote flexible working because it has a positive effect on the bottom line. If flexible working was promoted by their employers then more would apply for it’.

The bottom line

For employers, it makes sense too. Professor Cooper adds:  ‘As a country, we need to improve productivity – we are only ranked 17th in productivity terms in the G20 – and if both men and women embrace flexible working then that would help.

The culture at some organisations – some of those possibly in more traditional industries – does need to change. Managers need to see that the amount of work being done isn’t simply down to how many heads they have in their office.’

He adds: ‘Flexible working works for organisations because it creates a happy, loyal, trusted and valued workforce. And they tend to put in longer hours too – though I hope they aren’t overworking. Because they feel trusted by their employers to work from home they feel that they cannot let their employers down and put in more hours and are more productive. The trust and value placed on them also can lead to higher retention rates’.

However, not all businesses are in favour of flexible working. A survey of medium-sized businesses by professional services company RSM found that while three-quarters of medium sized companies are looking to increase flexible working, 32% said that they were concerned about IT security issues and 28% worried about the impact on customer service.

And 26% expressed fears about employees ‘exploiting the system’ and worried about the dynamics of teams being affected. It seems that some employers might still need convincing of the benefits of flexible working – just as some male employees do.

Charlotte Beugge spent more than 20 years as the deputy personal finance editor on The Daily Telegraph and then The Daily Mail. A freelancer since 2010, her work has appeared in national newspapers, magazines and websites.

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