Editorial: Flexible work requires an attitude change

It’s amazing how much we talk about the need to accommodate different needs by allowing people to work flexible hours and remotely but we still see so little in the way of concrete and clear action on the issue.

As the federal government’s recent consultations on flexible work — and the potential need to put some legal heft on the issue under the Canada Labour Code — demonstrated, there’s a lot of confusion around the issue. Employers may have informal notions about allowing for flexible work arrangements but they often leave the issue to the discretion of managers. Employees, on the other hand, are often reticent to take advantage of what their companies do offer for fear the employer will turn them down. And clearly, workplace culture hasn’t caught up to the need to modernize work practices, given the frequent assumption that those who work different hours or remotely aren’t contributing as much as those who are in the office as per the traditional schedule.

Read: Employers and employees disagree on right to request flexible working

The question, however, becomes what to do about the issue. As the consultation report released in September showed, employers were reluctant to embrace a right to ask for flexible work arrangements or a mechanism to deal with employees seeking to challenge the denial of a request. In addition, there was plenty of disagreement over whether employees should have to provide reasons for their request and the circumstances under which an employer could turn them down.

It’s a difficult issue. On the one hand, there’s a legitimate argument against excessive regulation, given the need for some flexibility in dealing with the issue. At the same time, it’s reasonable for employers to expect some limits on the right to request flexible work, including setting a certain period of time before employees could ask for an arrangement and considering performance issues in their decisions. And it’s legitimate for employers to expect staff to provide a reason for their request to work flexibly.

Read: 75% of global employers offer flexible working

But given the disconnect between the acknowledged benefits of flexible work and workplace cultures and practices, there’s a good argument for some sort of leadership in the area. It may not be time for a full regulatory regime with enforcement mechanisms around specific employee requests, but the federal government — and the provinces as well — could start by requiring employers to have written policies on the issue and provide direction for the managers tasked with implementing them.

The reality is that, even if the government introduced an enforcement mechanism for specific requests, employees would still be reluctant to use it if they were still working for the employer in question. So a softer approach that prods employers to start addressing the issue more concretely and equitably and starts to deal with the cultural disconnect would go some way in moving workplaces forward.

Regulatory muscle has its place, but it’ll only go so far if attitudes don’t change.

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