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In December, kindly supported by the British Society of Gerontology, local employers came together at the University of Southampton to reflect on some of the challenges of managing older workers.  The event sought to create a space to share experiences, building on my research on employers’ perspectives of managing the new universal right to request flexible work.  Older workers are a key group who stand to benefit from more flexible ways of performing their jobs: because of new demands on their time around caring, grand-parenting, voluntary work, or because of health restrictions.  Gerontology has a key role to play in understanding policy implementation around the new legislation.  One of the issues to come out of my research is that employers are often working alone in establishing new protocols around the requests they receive, and rarely have the opportunity to compare experiences about what’s working, and what they are finding more difficult to manage in complying with the new legislation.

One of the points to emerge from the evening’s discussions was how different legislative pressures interact within workplaces.  A trade union branch secretary pointed to how the Care Act was acting in tandem with the universal right to request.  Her branch had seen more carers receiving formal assessments as a result of the Care Act.  These assessments considered the impact of caring responsibilities upon carers’ broader lives, which naturally included their paid work.  Since caring reaches a lifetime peak in the pre- retirement years, assessments were opening up dialogue about how flexible work could be used as a strategy to cope with competing demands.  Union reps were consequently seeing more carers approaching them for support around making requests.  This tied in with my research, which flags the key role that trade unions have in supporting those least powerful in the labour market to develop applications likely to be successful in requesting flexible work, thus keeping them in work for longer.   This role stands to grow in the future.

We also discussed how putting in a formal application for flexible work might be employees’ first experience of approaching their employer, and in doing so they were being asked to present their request as a convincing case.  It was noted that this kind of approach drew attention to an underlying confrontational dynamic in the employer-employee relationship.  This was something that – on a day-to-day basis – workers did their best to avoid, and acting in this way could feel counter-intuitive and risky.  Older workers might be reluctant to rock the boat or to identify themselves as struggling to cope with a current working practice.  Indeed during times of austerity, they were likely to be nervous that putting in an application could mark them out as easy targets for early redundancy – rather than experienced workers who could be deployed in more creative ways.

On the other hand, the union delegate reflected that the most vulnerable groups might be best protected by precisely the kind of formal structure that a right-to-request application system provided.  The obstacle was that it might initially appear daunting for workers to access flexible work in this way.  There could also be a learning curve in enlisting workers’ trust about what the system could offer them.  Some of the employers felt that there would be a strong role for unions in the future, spreading information about flexible working rights and building employees’ confidence in putting together bids.  One of the pitfalls in the system now is that employees are expected to put together a ‘business case’ for their working arrangements to be changed, at the same time as making a personal case to persuade their employers.  These demands were potentially contradictory and, it was felt, ‘asking the impossible’.  People could also feel that discussing their private lives – precisely the aspect that might best convince employers of the need to look favourably upon flexible work requests – went against lifelong norms about what they considered to be appropriate behaviour at work.  There could well be a cohort effect around this kind of attitude.

A major issue that concerned our discussions was how the right to request system was ‘brought to life’ by line managers, who were the defining influence in terms of how flexible work applications were viewed, and welcomed or inhibited.  Although in principle flexible work is now available to everyone under the legislation, employers recognised that in practice it was much more accessible to workers with managers known to be open to these kinds of discussions. Hence, we are seeing a spectrum of flexible working practices, not only across labour markers, but also within organisations.  This diversity is driven by individual managerial preferences.  One of the delegates had done a lot of work training employers to help them tackle the new kinds of job design that flexible work might entail, as well as to connect with the possibilities it offered.  She pointed to the rapidly expanding scope for new ways of organising workload raised by flexible work, seen as off-putting and demanding by some employers, at the same time as others welcomed its new solutions as a business opportunity.

There was also evidence of innovative examples of workplace support for older workers, such as the large third sector organisation actively encouraging employees to participate in a mid-career review.  This got people re-evaluating how they wanted to, or were able to work, during the second half of their working lives, and chimes with gerontological theory taking a lifecourse perspective to active ageing.  This was just one of many sectoral differences underpinning experiences around flexible working.  A large public sector employer reflected on how their gendered, older, social care-based workforce drove a particularly high level of flexible work requests.  Given such needs, innovative support to employers around flexible work would be well targeted at sectors of the labour market where demand is known to be most pressing.  At the same time, there was a general agreement among these employers that demand for flexible work could be high within an ageing workforce, and would likely grow.  To make a success of the right to request policy a positive step would be to establish shared responsibility for flexible work throughout organisations.  This might also have the effect of nudging the most resistant managers into action, and get them engaging with how flexible work can really  benefit both workforces and employers.

Jane Parry, Centre for Research on Ageing, University of Southampton