Right to request flexible work extended to all employees

The planned changes to flexible working requests will have an impact on businesses, from listed corporates to SMEs, but are companies prepared and how will these changes work in practice?

When the right to request flexible work arrangements was first introduced, it was limited to carers of children under the age of six (or disabled children under the age of 18), although even at this early stage it was clear an expansion of rights was anticipated. The right was later extended to include individuals caring for adults and then to those caring for older children. 

From the summer of 2014 all employees who have 26 weeks’ continuous employment with the same employer will be able to ask for flexible work and a simplified procedure for making a request will be introduced. The new arrangements will mean that an employer has a duty to act within a reasonable time period rather than following a strict timetable. The changes will be supported by a new statutory code and best practice guide produced by the conciliation service ACAS. Tribunals will take into account the statutory code when considering complaints brought by employees.

The right to request flexible work has not always been well received as many employers have expressed concern that large numbers of employees would apply and that it would be difficult to refuse a request. Flexible work requests can include a change in working hours, a change in location (for example working from home), annualised hours, compressed hours, flexi-time, job-sharing and term-time working. Despite initial fears, the numbers of claims brought against employers has been comparatively low. 

It is worth keeping in mind that the new procedure, like the old arrangements, does not give employees a right to insist on flexible or part-time work. It simply provides a framework within which employers have to consider requests from eligible employees. Employers will still be able to refuse requests (or suggest alternative arrangements) where they have good business reasons.

For example, requests can currently be refused because of additional costs, a negative impact on customer service, performance or quality, the inability to re-organise work amongst existing staff (or to recruit additional staff for example for a job share) or other planned changes. In the future employers will be expected to weigh the benefits of the requested changes for the employee and the employer against any “adverse business impact”. 

Although when the forthcoming changes were discussed it was suggested that an employer “should always approach requests to work flexibly from the presumption that [it would] grant them unless there is a business reason for not doing so”, this guidance is not expected to be included in the ACAS code. Employers will therefore still be able to make essential decisions for the good of their organisation. 

Where employers have already extended the right to request flexible working, favourable outcomes have been reported in terms of staff retention and morale. Employers may find it easier to offer flexible working arrangements in larger or less specialised businesses. However, a more flexible workforce also offers advantages for SMEs – not just in encouraging happier employees but also in managing overheads and ensuring there is a broader skill set within an organisation. 

Given the upcoming changes, now may be the perfect time for employers to consider how their flexible working policies may need to be updated in order to support the continued success of their businesses. 

If you would like to discuss changes to flexible work arrangements, requests for flexible work or how to introduce effective policies and procedures, then please contact Catherine Daw, the Head of the Brachers’ Employment and HR Team. 

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