Breaking barriers: Survey reveals last blocks to flexible working

The 2019 Modern Families Index shows that several obstacles remain to flexible and part-time working in the UK. Can law firms lead the way to smashing through them?

Most parents are still struggling to balance work, family and income – and it isn’t helped by employers continuing to block routes to flexible working. These are some of the findings of the 2019 Modern Families Index, which for the seventh year surveyed 2,750 working parents and carers of children aged 13 or younger.

Of those parents taking part in the Index this year, which is published annually by charity Working Families and Bright Horizons Family Solutions, only a quarter said they had achieved the right balance between work, family and income. Fewer than a quarter (24%) felt that their financial circumstances had improved over the past thee years, and the majority (49%) felt that it had become more difficult financially to raise a family. This was worse for single parents and part-time workers.

However, despite the fact that flexible working could help ease these pressures, it seems that many parents still face considerable barriers to working flexibly. The survey found that:

  • Although 86% of working parents responding to the Index would like to work flexibly, only 49% actually do so.
  • Two out of five parents say that flexible working isn’t compatible with their jobs (even through there are increasing numbers of flexible working success stories across most sectors, including retail and manufacturing).
  • Over a third (37%) say flexible working isn’t available where they work, despite all employees having the Right to Request flexible working
  • Nearly a tenth said their manager wouldn’t support flexible working, making the problem personal.

It doesn’t help either that those on part-time and flexible contacts seems to get fewer promotions than those working full time. Part-timers in the Index were half as likely to have been promoted in the past three years compared to those who worked full-time. In addition, those working flexibly are less likely to move onto other, perhaps better paying roles, for fear of losing their flexible arrangements. Tellingly, nearly two-thirds (65%) of mother agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: ‘I will stay in my job because I won’t be able to get the flexibility I have now elsewhere.’

Lessons for the legal sector

While the Index covers all sectors, the findings are important for law firms keen to be seen as employers of choice. At Attune, we have seen many more firms opening their minds to flexible and part-time working. With a shortfall of great business services candidates in law, firms have realised that they need to think more creatively about how they attract and retain great talent – many now know that offering flexible and agile working options are an important tool for talent management and development.

But firms now need to go beyond just saying they will consider flexible options. They also need to ensure that those roles offer serious career opportunities, allowing flexible and part-time workers to progress rather than ‘trapping’ them in a role that in the long term only serves to disengage flexible employees and limit potential. Not only will delivering equal support to all employees improve firm-wide performance, but firms may also find they excel at attracting top talent from other businesses that do not support flexible talent in the same way.

We are in a fast-changing world. Not only are more people demanding flexible options in the workplace, but more flexible workers are also making it into leadership roles. The recent Timewise Power 50, published in the Daily Telegraph, showcased 50 business leaders who manage to achieve their duties while working part-time. But for those who still think flexible working is a women’s thing (designed chiefly for mothers), the list also includes 10 men, the highest number so far, including Chris Bryant who works three days a week for an international law firm, while spending the rest of his time balancing his duties as a father with writing musical theatre.

This is proof, if proof is still needed, that flexible and part-time options can be compatible with working at the most senior levels. Law firms, in particular, have an opportunity here to stand out from other sectors and show that flexible and part-time options can work in practice – and so attract and retain outstanding talent that makes a genuine difference to business success and growth.

Whats next?

Flexible and part-time working has come on a huge way in a relatively short period of time. Now comes the chance for law firms to break down the final barriers and reap the full benefits that flexible and part-time working can offer to employers and employees alike.

Flexible working, Working mums

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