Major win on flexible working at Lambeth Council

A report into flexible working practices at Lambeth Council makes very essential reading for all staff

A report by an external investigator into the denial of flexible working for two teams at Lambeth Council – Technical Services and Capital Works – fully exonerates what the workers and UNISON have been saying.

The two teams were issued a blanket instruction in May of 2018 about where they could sit and made clear that the managers expected staff to work in the Civic Centre. All considerations for flexible working – beyond very limited examples – were ignored. There was no consultation with the staff of UNISON, in direct contravention of the Council’s policy.

As 3.1 states “Managers should seek input from staff and trade union representatives when developing flexible working arrangements for their team. It is important that all views are taken into account though the final decision on arrangements will rest with the manager. There may be many circumstances where the team and manager can develop plans for working arrangements which suit the needs of the service and which are also suitable for individual employees. Any team – based arrangements  should …….. be recorded in writing and copied to all team members.”

Furthermore 2.14 and 2.15:

2.14 Proposals to change the current working arrangements of a team need to be set out in writing to the affected staff, explaining the valid operational reason for proposing the change, with a
copy to appropriate trade union representatives. It is good practice to also hold a team meeting to explain the proposals. The written notification to staff should remind staff of their right to seek trade union advice.

2.15 A reasonable period for consultation should be given to consider alternative proposals and the impact on individuals. This consultation should be for a minimum of two weeks, but depending on the degree of change, impact and number of staff affected it would be appropriate to agree a longer period of consultation to enable discussion to take place, for example where one or more staff are absent.

The report states “The message is unequivocal – flexible working is now the default position at LBL, that is flexible working is the norm at LBL unless there are good business reasons not todo so.”

The report finds that staff were denied their rights at work according to the Smarter Flexible Policy (SFP). That the management had failed to implement the policy properly – including informing the unions and having a one month review. In essence management acted as if flexible working was a privilege for a few staff and not something that was a default position for all, Management’s “approach effectively subverted the SFP, its spirit and intent.”

The report also gets the heart of the matter for many teams where flexible working is being denied or circumvented. Essentially the managers do no trust their staff and believe they need to be watched and micromanaged. The report rebuts the idea that forcing staff to sit in a certain area and only operate from the CC is an effective use of management time, and that actually better induction, training and development is required if there are knowledge gaps.

There is also the issue of institutional racism. The staff members involved did not believe that ethnicity was a factor in the refusal to grant them flexible working, but given the recent acknowledgement of the CEO Andrew Travers of a culture of institutional racism at the Council, it would have been remiss of us as a union not to raise it as a possibility given that most of the Technical Services and Capital Works team are BAME. The report indicates that we were right to raise it

The report concludes that: “The cultural shift is significant, from a traditional 9 – 5 ‘clocking in’ approach to a more entrepreneurial, mature and equitable system that requires mutual trust and confidence to operate smoothly.”

It shows you the cultural problem at Lambeth Council that all of this was perfectly plain and clear, yet the teams involved were treated so badly by management and many of their complaints were ignored that they had to take industrial action. The workers involved voted for strike action because they weren’t being listened to and they knew that their terms and conditions were being effectively torn up.

Thankfully the Council has committed to a full implementation of the recommendations of the review. We should see a cultural change across the council over the coming months.

UNISON was right to launch the dispute, our members were right to speak to us about it.

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