Home Opinion/Commentary How the UK’s new rights around flexible working will affect employees and businesses

How the UK’s new rights around flexible working will affect employees and businesses

by The Conversation
By Jane Parry, University of Southampton and Michalis Veliziotis, University of Southampton

Employees in the UK have just received a new right to request flexible working arrangements from the first day of a new job. This is courtesy of the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Act and supporting secondary legislation, which are in force from April 6, and represent an important change to employment regulations for Britain’s 1.5 million employers.

Flexible working covers numerous arrangements that deviate from “standard” employment practices, such as part-time work, compressed hours, job shares, flexitime and remote working. UK employees all received a right to ask for such arrangements when the Flexible Working Regulations were extended in 2014. However, this came with substantial restrictions, such as applicants having had to be in post for 26 weeks, so that in practice most workplaces arranged flexible working either informally or outside of the statutory request process.

The new rules may well make the statutory system mainstream. Around 2 million employees a year are currently leaving their jobs due to a lack of flexible working arrangements (albeit informal flexible-working arrangements increased during the pandemic).

Organisations should therefore prepare for an increase in statutory requests. Most employers are expecting this, according to research by work communications platform Slack, which also finds that a majority have not made their workforce aware of their new rights.

So what are the key changes, and what do they mean for employers and workers?

1. The right to a request from day 1

It will be vital that recruitment teams are well equipped to discuss flexible working during job interviews, and also that managers have the skills to design jobs that reflect the needs of their staff.

The government’s intention is that by encouraging a more diverse range of job applicants, organisations will have a wider talent pool from which to recruit. Many employees, women in particular, stay in posts where they have secured a flexible working arrangement, knowing it might be difficult to obtain a similar arrangement elsewhere.

In many cases this hampers their career progress, which can have lifelong financial consequences. This helps to explain why a survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that 57% of HR professionals favour the new day 1 right to a request.

2. How requests work

Employers must now respond to requests within two months, whereas previously they were allowed three, which can be too long in a crisis situation. Employees under the old system could only submit one request a year, but can now submit two.

The idea is that those with changing circumstances will be supported to work flexibly in different ways over the course of a year. For example, someone supporting their partner through cancer treatment may want to vary their working patterns around anticipated care demands. Employers might find these shifting arrangements challenging, but it will hopefully help them to retain valued staff.

Equally, employees whose first application has been turned down can now make a new request without having to wait too long. For example, they might come back with a new proposal that demonstrates an understanding of their employer’s constraints and proposes a more mutually beneficial arrangement.

It will be incumbent on employers to make sure their decision-making process is as transparent as possible, since this will help employees to tailor future requests and ensure that there’s a constructive and efficient dialogue.

3. Rejecting requests

In another change to the 2014 rules, employers must not reject a request without first consulting the employee. This is essential to make sure employers understand the circumstances behind requests, particularly given that these are often motivated by rapidly changing, unavoidable things like family health crises. The starting position for employers should always be to consider what may be possible, and to identify viable alternatives if the employee’s request isn’t workable.

4. Applicant requirements

Employees submitting requests are no longer required to explain how their proposed arrangement would affect their employer and how it could be dealt with. This means that line managers will need to have a central role in making decisions about requests, since they will usually have the greatest knowledge about job roles and will have to implement any new arrangement. Employers will accordingly need to train and support their line managers around managing flexible working.

For anyone needing more information, national employment-relations adviser Acas’ code of practice helps to explain what the changes mean for employers and employees.

The case for more flexible working

We recently conducted research for Acas, for publication this summer, looking at how organisations in different sectors have been using flexible working since the pandemic. We found that only a small minority of the huge range of today’s flexible working practices have been organised through the statutory right to request process.

Statutory requests have mostly been restricted to more complicated cases. This might include situations where a line manager is known to be unsympathetic to flexible working, or where a request would run contrary to normal shift patterns, such as in a supermarket or hospital.

The large volume of informal flexible working in organisations provides some indication of employee demand for these arrangements. An informal set-up can be fine for everyday demands like needing to take time off to look after a sick family member. But where a flexible arrangement has become more routine, such as working longer or shorter hours on different days, employees might benefit from the enhanced security of having it written into their contracts rather than relying on a verbal agreement.

While some employers will probably regard the legislation as a major shakeup, the government’s impact assessment highlighted business benefits such as improved productivity, more motivated employees and reduced absenteeism. We would also argue that the legislation offers employers a unique opportunity to take stock of how their employees’ needs for flexible working have changed since the pandemic.

Such an approach can enable them to gain a deeper understanding of their employees’ circumstances, and take a more inclusive and fair approach to supporting requests.

Jane Parry, Associate professor of work and employment, University of Southampton and Michalis Veliziotis, Associate Professor of Human Resource Management, University of Southampton

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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