Employers and employees disagree on right to request flexible working

While employers and employees view flexible working as an important topic worth discussing in today’s workplace, they disagree on whether workers should have a legal right under the Canada Labour Code to request it, according to the results of the federal government’s consultation on flexible working arrangements.

The Ministry of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour’s report, which summarizes responses from stakeholders, roundtable discussions and an online survey of 1,082 Canadians, follows the government’s consultation, launched in May, on amending the law so employees in federally regulated sectors have the right to request flexible working arrangements.

Have your say: Should employees have to give reasons when asking for flexible work options?

The survey found that many respondents recognize flexible working as a reality in today’s workplace and 73 per cent had asked for flexibility, mostly around scheduling and work locations, in the past five years. Of those who made the request, the majority said they were accommodated while three in 10 said that they weren’t.

Among respondents, just 30 per cent said their current workplace provides flexible working as part of workplace policy, while 35 per cent said their workplace does so as part of a collective agreement and 36 per cent said it do so as part of informal practices.


Read: 75% of global employers offer flexible working

Consultation respondents noted the many benefits of flexibility including reduced absenteeism, increased engagement and productivity, healthier employees, better recruitment and retention, and more participation in the labour market by workers with chronic illnesses, disabilities and mental-health issues.

As well, they noted that flexible working has a positive impact on different types of workers including caregivers, millennials and workers with disabilities.

However, a significant majority (73.7 per cent) of respondents to the survey are female, a disproportionate representation of Canada’s workforce, notes Nora Spinks, chief executive officer of the Vanier Institute of the Family. “Is this going to feminize flexibility?” she asks.

“Is this something that’s going to continue to separate men from women? Is this an indication of a need to further engage men in care and caring, and household responsibilities? Or is this just the next step that makes it possible for men and women to begin to talk about flexibility.”

Read: My Take: Flex work should be an employer perk, not an obligation

The consultation also found that the right to request flexible working shouldn’t automatically mean that the request will be granted. Most stakeholders agreed employers should be allowed to turn down requests for legitimate reasons. However, the debate revolves around what reasons are justifiable and whether employers should be mandated to reveal their reasons to the employee.

“The biggest thing we’ve experienced is when managers feel they have a right to the reason for the request, it changes the role and the responsibility of the manager,” says Spinks. “One of the things we’ve seen in best practice is where employees don’t have to give a reason for their flex, those workplaces are much more equitable and much more fair … and much fewer complaints.”

Among those who participated in the consultation, there was a general agreement that there should be a formal process for requesting flex work, but there was no consensus on what a possible protocol would look like. “The federal government has reaffirmed its commitment to go ahead fairly quickly,” says Spinks. “So we’re going to need to get some mechanisms in place quickly, and we’re going to need to do some training, education and support, even things like what documents to use to request flex … Is it a verbal request? Is a simple email? Is it a proposal you complete?”

Read: 71% would turn down a job that offered no flexibility: survey

The report recommended finding best practice examples where flexible working arrangements are already in place to share with other employers. The Vanier Institute of the Family has a lot of experience with organizations that have implemented flexible working successfully, maintaining engagement and fairness, as well as productivity, performance and retention, says Spinks.

“We have decades of experience now with the federal jurisdiction, but also within other workplaces that we can learn from. I think one of the things the government should be considering is finding mechanisms to share that with not just employers, but front-running managers, supervisors, union stewards, and do this in a really collaborative tone as opposed to a very traditional, imposed, negative, ‘thou shalt do this whether you like it or not.’”

The government said it plans to move forward in the coming months to amend the Canada Labour Code to give employees in federally regulated sectors the right to request flexible working arrangements and to explore ways to help them manage their work and personal lives.

Read: Canadians want more work-life balance: survey