On-going changes in society over successive decades has helped forge our ever-closer relationship with the concept of flexible working. The rise of the working mother has been a key driver in this change. A report published last year by the Office for National Statistics showed that the number of working mothers has leapt by almost 800,000 to 5.3 million since 1996.
The quest for many workers, male or female, to enjoy a better work/life balance has also moved the issue of flexible working to the fore since it was first introduced to UK employees in 2003. Following new legislation introduced last month, these rights have now been extended even further.
Previously the right to request flexible working was only available to those responsible for children and, more recently, to those who acted as carers for adults. This right has now been extended to all employees providing they have at least 26 weeks of continuous service, regardless of whether or not they have any caring responsibilities. What this means for employers is that any of their employees – single, married, with or without children – can make a flexible working request once in any 12 month period. An employee’s claim for flexible working can be based on a request to change the hours that they work, the times they are required to work or their place of work.
The current rigid timetable for handling these requests has also been replaced by a general obligation on employers to consider each one received in a “reasonable manner”. The guidance from ACAS, the organisation devoted to preventing and resolving workplace disputes, recommends that at least one meeting is held with an employee (who should be accompanied by a colleague or representative) when a flexible working arrangement is requested. The employer must then simply notify the employee of the outcome of their request within three months of it being made.
Although employers are no longer required to grant an appeal against a flexible working request, ACAS recommends that allowing this right should be maintained as best practice.
Undoubtedly these changes to the rules may see some employers faced with a larger number of flexible working requests. However, this need not be viewed as a negative for a business or organisation. One of the reasons for the rise in flexible working is the fact it does, in most cases, benefit employers as well as their people.
Studies have revealed that flexible working can often enhance a business’s profitability and benefit the wider economy. The Agile Future Forum (2), a group made up of 22 organisations which employ around 500,000 people in the UK, produced some powerful insights into the benefits of flexible working. Its 2012 report, “The Benefits of Flexible Working Arrangements”, identified 12 tangible benefits – evenly split between employers and employees – and concluded that by being open to this within the workplace companies can meet present and future challenges more effectively.
There are however situations where flexible working can hurt a business. Where this is the case, employers will continue to have the option of turning down a request on a number of statutory grounds. These include, amongst others, insufficiency of work during the employee’s proposed hours, inability to organise work amongst staff and the potential for it to have a negative impact on a business or organisation’s ability to service customer demands.
Another common concern amongst employers is how they demonstrate an even-handed approach if faced with a number of requests for flexible working. Each request should be looked at on its merits and with a view to consistency across the organisation. ACAS also offer guidance here, suggesting that employers should deal with requests in the order they receive them rather than trying to prioritise them based on any kind of perceived merit.
Employers need to reflect these new legislative changes within their organisational policy on flexible working. For many, there are positive opportunities that can result by embracing the concept of flexibility in the workplace. The starting position is for employers to think about how they can benefit from the advantages this can bring rather than focusing solely on the hurdles they may face.
• Dawn Dickson is a partner and employment law specialist at Davidson Chalmers www.davidsonchalmers.com