Why flexible working shouldn’t be instead of a pay rise

laptop work from home

There’s been quite a bit of discussion online recently about flexible working and whether employers could offer it as an alternative to a pay rise. (Smart Working Revolution, 3 Plus International, HR magazine have all published articles suggesting this could be A Good Thing.

I was also sent a survey this week from a recruitment agency that asked that exact question – “What would you prefer, a salary increase, a promotion or flexible working”.

This idea makes me profoundly uncomfortable, and I’ve been trying to analyse why:

1. It encourages the myth that flexible working is a privilege or favour given by companies, and only benefits employees. It’s been proven time and time again that flexible working boosts productivity and profit. Surely this is the core message that needs to be landing with businesses – not the idea that flexible working is a nice fluffy thing they can do to make their staff happy?

2. As flexible working is a clear win for both sides, it should be viewed as how a fit-for-future business should be working. And optimising a business process or way of working is in no way equivalent to – or a replacement for – delivering an annual pay increase.    Effectively, these articles are suggesting that people should only be allowed to adopt a more productive and profitable working style if they sacrifice salary to do so.

Clearly here I’m not talking about part time hours with pay pro-rated down accordingly – of course that makes sense and the benefit to employer overheads is not shouted about often enough. It’s the idea that any variation on a 9-5 office-based week is somehow worth less that jars.

3. Some of this discussion is still rooted in the idea that flexible working is a ‘women’s’ thing.   The subtext seems to be that women – and especially mums – are so desperate to get a level of flexibility that they will sacrifice salary to do so. While this is in many cases true, it feels like a cynical – bordering on exploitative – move for businesses to spin this as a valid and positive substitute for a salary increase.    It also echoes the idea that a ‘good woman’ values caring over money – an idea that has stitched up millions of women over history – and led to whole industries being undervalued.

And there are gender pay gap implications here: if flexible working is categorised as a ‘soft benefit that is important to women’ that creates a barrier to men taking it up – and if women are enticed to accept flexible working instead of a pay rise this will have a double whammy effect.

There is absolutely a role for flexibility as part of a motivating and holistic package for employees (and I like the concept of emotional salary – though clearly as a complement to and not a substitute for cold hard rational cash!).

We need to make sure that the bigger discussion around flexible working keeps moving forward – and land the bigger arguments that will move the dial. In other words, the proven business benefits of adopting it, and the fact that 87% of the population wants it, including most of the future talent pipeline.

And this means that flexible working should not be about a way to avoid giving mums a pay rise – it should simply be the new working normal.

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