Legislation on increasing flexible working has failed, research says

Legislation giving employees the right to request flexible working has failed to increase take-up, new research shows.

There has been no significant overall increase in the number of employees working flexibly since the legislation came into effect in 2014, a British Sociological Association conference in Belfast heard today. [Wednesday, 12 September 2018]

Joanna Wilson analysed survey data from a sample of up to 24,736 UK employees for her PhD at the University of Manchester.

She found that when comparing the same people in 2010 and 2015, there was little change in the uptake of flexible working – those working flexible start and finish times, fewer hours, or from home. In 2010, 44.1% of all employees worked flexibly, and by 2015 the figure was 44.3%. 

While there were small changes in some areas, such as decreases in the use of term- time working and job shares and increases in the use of flexi-time and home working, these changes were not statistically significant, with the one exception of an increase in home working.

Ms Wilson told the ‘Work, Employment and Society’ conference that the Conservative-LibDem coalition had brought in a statutory right for staff to request flexible working in June 2014.

“The extension of the right to request flexible working to all employees, regardless of caring responsibilities, was aimed at increasing its use in the hope that this would lead to the creation of better paid and better quality flexible jobs, thus helping close the gender pay gap,” she said.

“On the whole, the use of flexible working in the UK appears to have changed very little from 2010 to 2015, and there is no early evidence of an increase since the extension of the right to request legislation in 2014.”

She said that the findings may reflect a limitation of the legislation that employees must be employed for at least six months before having the right to request and that not all employees may be aware of their right to request flexible working.  

“Many employers may remain sceptical about the benefits of flexible working and under the legislation are able to refuse requests providing they have a valid business reason such as a burden of additional costs, an inability to reorganise work amongst existing staff or a detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand," said Ms Wilson.

“Barriers such as negative line manager attitudes and a cultural presumption against flexible working in organisations may also exist to dissuade employees from submitting a flexible working application in the first place, and those employees who have applications approved may experience a stigma associated with working flexibly which has been found to lead to limited career progression." 

She also found that:

  • Part-time flexible work continues to be predominantly used by women, with little sign of change. Women with children under the age of 16 were up to six times more likely than those without dependent children to work part-time. Men with children under 16 were no more likely than those without dependent children to work part-time.
  • Flexi-time was more likely among employees in the largest firms, those working in a management role, those in the public sector and those educated to degree level.
  • Homeworking was less likely in the public sector compared to the private sector. It was also up to three times more likely to be used by those educated to degree level. 

Her research is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and supported by Close the Gap:  www.closethegap.org.uk

For more information, please contact:

Tony Trueman
British Sociological Association
Tel: 07964 023392


  1. Ms Wilson used data from the Understanding Society survey, which is a nationally-representative study of the UK population containing information on various aspects of the respondents’ lives, including working conditions. The survey is a rolling panel study, meaning that the same households participate in the survey each year. 
  2. The above focuses on the more formal use of flexible working, that which leads to changes in the employment contract as opposed to informal flexible working where an employee may alter their working time or place on an ad hoc basis to accommodate medical appointments, for example.
  3. The British Sociological Association’s Work, Employment and Society conference takes place from 12-14 September 2018 at the Europa Hotel, Belfast.
  4. The British Sociological Association’s charitable aim is to promote sociology. The BSA is a Company Limited by Guarantee. Registered in England and Wales. Company Number: 3890729. Registered Charity Number 1080235   www.britsoc.co.uk