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02 November 2021

'Huge barriers' remain to effective flexible working despite greater government focus

Normalising flexible working would help working parents in particular

woman working with child

Working parents, flexibility and job quality: what are the trade-offs?

Read the research

The UK government’s commitment to flexible working will falter unless more is done to overcome the huge barriers that remain to adopting the practice, a new report warns.


Under government proposals, British workers will be able to request the right to work flexibly from their first day in a job, instead of after six months, which is the current rule – but researchers say this doesn’t go far enough, and that all jobs should be designed and advertised as flexible unless there is a strong business case for not doing so.


The report, produced by the charity Working Families, the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London and the University of East Anglia, and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, says that employers’ denial of flexible working requests for unsubstantiated reasons, a lack of knowledge of how to deal with them and unsupportive workplace cultures are hindering more widespread adoption of flexible approaches, which would be a boost to the “levelling up” agenda and improve gender equality.


Previous research by the TUC has found that one in three flexible working requests in the UK are turned down.


Normalising flexible working would help working parents in particular, the report argues, as many – especially mothers – currently have to sacrifice pay and progression in order to secure flexibility, leaving them stuck in jobs that may be flexible but have few opportunities for advancement.


This stems from employers’ negative attitudes towards part-time and flexible working arrangements, and a perception that senior roles cannot be performed flexibly, the researchers say.


Gendered assumptions by employers – such as that mothers are happy to forgo training and progression, and that fathers do not have family responsibilities – also play a part, while flexibility is often defined only in narrow terms, failing to offer the reduced hours and alternative schedules that some parents need.

The report – which is informed by in-depth focus groups with working parents – emphasises that job and financial security, control over when and how work is carried out, and support from managers, are all highly valued by parents and must be combined with flexible approaches.


The report offers recommendations to improve the working lives of parents.

For government, these include:

  • Using the forthcoming Employment Bill to support employees’ rights to access suitable working arrangements and improve job control and security, including through advanced notice of shifts for shift workers, and a requirement that all jobs should be designed and advertised with flexible working options.
  • Recognising in the forthcoming Levelling Up White Paper the potential of flexible working to distribute opportunities more fairly across the UK and widen access to the labour market, particularly for single parents.
  • Urgently addressing the problems with childcare affordability, quality and availability, and make free universal childcare available from 39 weeks.


For employers these include:

  • Designing and advertising all jobs as flexible unless there is a strong business case that this is not possible.
  • Not using unsubstantiated “business needs” to justify refusing flexible working requests. Instead provide evidence to support their justification and considering alternative working arrangements if requests cannot be accommodated.
  • Asking working parents what they need and value at work and helping them to achieve that, rather than relying on assumptions. This includes looking at schedules, hours, workload changes or other ways to improve job quality.


Jane van Zyl, CEO of Working Families, said:


“Over recent decades we’ve seen plenty of progress in parents being able to access high quality work, but we know that some barriers to change have remained stubbornly in place. The juggling act parents carry out on a daily basis is much discussed: this new research brings it to life by looking at the quality of the jobs parents can get, and the compromises they make to try and secure them alongside meeting their caring responsibilities.


“The stories about the trade-offs parents make to manage work and childcare are often shocking to hear, but we know that the examples shared in this report illuminate the experience of many. Working parents are often undertaking low paid roles, well below their level of skill, and giving up on opportunities to progress or take promotion because of their childcare responsibilities. It shows very clearly that work and care are not easily reconciled without flexibility, security and supportive employers.”

Dr Rose Cook, Senior Research Fellow at the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, King’s College London, said:


“Our research highlights that improving parents’ working lives and keeping them in employment relies on far more than just allowing them to request flexible working from day one. Flexibility as it currently stands arguably bolsters gender inequalities rather than tackling them, since it is so often associated with poorly valued, marginalised roles, and is unavailable within higher quality jobs.


“Mothers especially should not be having to sacrifice fair, fulfilling and meaningful working lives so that they can manage caring responsibilities. Both structural and cultural changes are needed across the workforce so that these trade-offs don’t need to be made.”


Alex Beer, Welfare Programme Head at the Nuffield Foundation, said:


“Juggling work and family life is a common feature of many parents’ lives and often has ramifications for individual and family well-being. This research highlights the value of flexible working options to address some of the challenges faced by parents in reaching a balance between work and childcare. It also demonstrates that how the working lives of parents could be improved by job and financial security, agency over when and how work is carried out, and greater support from managers.”


The report is being launched at an online event featuring Tulip Siddiq MP at 10am on 2 November.

About the Nuffield Foundation

The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social well-being. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare, and Justice. It also funds student programmes that provide opportunities for young people to develop skills in quantitative and scientific methods. The Nuffield Foundation is the founder and co-funder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the Ada Lovelace Institute and the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory. The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. Visit