This week the UK law has changed to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees with over six months service with their employer. This progression moves from the rights previously available for parents of young or disabled children to request to work flexibly, which has been on the statute books for some time now. So what difference will this make?
What is new?
The right to request flexible working is not a new one, but the extension of this right could see it being applied in a whole range of different circumstances to those businesses have become used to. Previously flexible working was legally required to be considered only for parents, and as such it was mainly requested for child care reasons. Flexible working means that people could request changes to working patterns, such as changes to their shift times, changes to location of work, like working from home, or a reduction in hours or days worked, making a whole host of applications possible.
The extension of this right means that flexible working could be requested for purposes as diverse as continuing study, practising hobbies, or sporting commitments - although the more ’traditional’ requests related to caring responsibilities are likely to continue and apply to a wider range of situations, such as people needing to care of elderly relatives, or grandparents wishing to help with the care of their family. The new scope of the law might also be of interest to older workers looking to gradually ease into retirement who may choose to request a reduction in their hours.
What does the change mean?
For many large businesses, the change in the law will make little practical difference, as many larger companies chose to extend the rights to all employees previously when the intention to change the law was revealed. The bigger impact of the change is likely to be in smaller businesses where processes may not have been as robust as in larger organisations, and it is here that special attention to the new requirements is needed. The main impact is likely to be a potential rise in requests from non traditional groups due to the publicity about the legal change increasing awareness among different groups of employees.
How does it work?
The process for applying for flexible working is unchanged, with employers duty bound to treat requests ’reasonably’, in line with the ACAS code of best practice, and give full consideration to all applications. Employers need to hold a meeting with the applicant, and offer a right of appeal if the application to work flexibly is not granted. Failure to follow these reasonable steps could result in an employment tribunal claim being entered, although it is important to note that in the case of flexible working the employee has a right to request changes, but the employer is under no duty to accept them, and there are a number of economic, organisational, and practical reasons why a request may be denied.
What benefits will this bring?
Flexible working can allow access to work for a whole range of employees who may not be able to work traditional office hours, which improves diversity in a business. The ability to request flexible working for the established colleague also could improve morale and retention as employees are able to stay working after lifestyle changes, such as having children, which may make working longer or more traditional patterns more difficult. Being able to work in a pattern closer to their choosing can also improve productivity, and can positively impact engagement as colleagues feel greater warmth towards their employer.
Cause for concern?
Cause for concern about the new legal changes has been voiced by small businesses, with the Federation of Small Businesses highlighting the potential ’negative dynamic’ in small businesses which could not honour requests. The potential for an increased administrative burden on small businesses is also a possible problem, with smaller businesses not necessarily able to restructure to support flexibility in the same way that a larger organisation would be able to. A further concern raised is about the application of the change in law, with the TUC raising a concern about how fairly flexible working requests would really be considered by employers. In the event of a sudden increase in applications this could be an even greater issue.
Time will tell if the change of the law makes any material difference to the working lives of the average UK worker. The progressive shift from a traditional nine to five office existence to a more varied working pattern for many, may mean that this opportunity to request changes that can be a personal lifestyle benefit, will be an attractive option.