Summer is finally here and with it the news that, as of 30 June everyone, whether they have dependent children or other people to care for, can request flexible working hours, so long as they have worked in the same place for at least 26 weeks. They may not get it, but at least employers are now obliged to give it serious consideration and have to give a valid business reason why they can’t allow it.
Heather Grant, employment lawyer at Maxwell Hodge explains, “An employee who has worked at a firm for over six months can now request flexible working, and this request has to be dealt with reasonably and within in a reasonable period, supported by a statutory code of practice.”
It’s about time that work was seen as something that has to fit into real life, rather than the other way round. I’ve always found it weird that work has turned into something that dominates our lives so much. There always seems to be something to finish off at home, files to lug around, guilt to carry and pressure quietly building.
It wasn’t always like this. When I was a student I spent my summer holidays working at the blind factory. This was not, like the old joke, a factory that made blinds, this really was a factory that made all sorts, staffed by people who were blind or visually impaired. I worked in the canteen. As my last day neared one of the men working there – who was on a special diet so I got to know him well, gave me some money and asked me to spend it on a farewell present. I went out and bought Sting’s latest LP, Synchronicity, and told him a day or so later how much I was enjoying it. “Careful,” he said, “are you sure you want a police record?” Sharp as a tack he was.
But I digress. The point is that despite all the current talk of work having to be centred on SMART targets, what actually happens is that work becomes never-ending, as technology allows the boundaries between home and work to become seamlessly blended. Working in that canteen was one of the few jobs I’ve ever done that had Specific, Measurable Achievable, Relevant and Time-dependent (SMART) goals that could be met and ticked off at the end of the day. I’d get in about eight, make up the cheese and tuna rolls for elevenses, put on the urn for tea and coffee, then help the cook make whatever we were doing for lunch – a home-made chicken pie or lamb hotpot on an industrial scale with a veggie choice, something with salad and a couple of home-made puddings and custard. It was a proper Victoria Wood style Dinner Ladies canteen and when I knocked off halfway through the afternoon after the men’s tea break with the kitchen all spic and span and ready for the morning, I cycled home feeling fabulous – knowing that I’d worked hard, done something worthwhile, but equally importantly, it was done, finished for the day and there was absolutely nothing that needed to be done, or could be done, until it all started again the next morning. Emails and smartphones had yet to be invented, so all I had to do on the way home was try not to fall off my bike, so there was no nonsense about sourcing a few new chicken suppliers on my way home.
That’s why I greet the announcement of universal flexible working with such mixed feelings this morning. It’s wonderful to extend flexible hours to everyone, not just those of us with children or other dependent relatives to care for, because we all have “stuff” to do that can dominate our lives and it doesn’t always fit into those boisterous boxes called children. But how much difference will it really make when work is becoming less and less easy to escape? When I was a junior reporter I could spin going to the police station into a whole afternoon, what with all the door-stepping and sussing out of the opposition papers’ reporters to do afterwards. Now you can’t even get on a train without the guard reminding you that you can charge your laptop and phone in the socket beneath your seat. So my fear is that “flexible working” will soon be just another way of saying, “We’ve replaced your zero hours contract with a 24-hour one, sold the office and invested in a new app called worktillyoudrop.com. By the way – have you seen this new screen guard? It means you can take your laptop to the beach and still stay on message.”
Is that what Sting meant by Synchronicity?
Posted by Amanda Blinkhorn