The rights of a flexible workforce: UK flexible working legislation

Clare Hopping

Tuesday 26 August 2014

Flexible working arrangements are on the rise, with new laws making it possible for all staff to request flexible or remote work hours. What rights and obligations do employers and employees have under the UK’s new flexible working regime?

The way we work is undergoing a significant transformation, with technology making it possible for many employees to work from anywhere, at a time that suits them.

Recognising the need for a more flexible approach to working, the UK government has legalised the right of all employees to request flexible work arrangements. Under the new laws, any employee with more than six months of continuous service can request flexible working arrangements, whether they have to assist to the needs of dependants or not.

The request can cover working fewer hours a week or month, shifting an employee’s start or finish time, or working from home on certain days. The types of flexible working arrangements that employees can request include:

  1. Job sharing.
  2. Working fewer hours each week.
  3. Working full-time hours in fewer days.
  4. Starting earlier or later.
  5. Working from home.
  6. Annualised hours.
  7. Phased retirement.

Employees are only allowed to put in one request every 12 months. If the request is granted, it represents a permanent change to their contract, so neither the employee nor the employer can change it back without readjusting the contract.

So what does the new regime mean for managers and employers?

Implications for employers

Pam Loch, managing director at Loch Associates Employment Lawyers,says employers must now consider all requests for flexible working hours seriously, as there is an obligation to grant the request, unless there are good reasons not to.

“The onus with these changes is now on the employer to start from the premise that they should grant the request,” Loch says. “They must therefore provide a reason why it’s not possible, if they wish to deny the request. The employer is also expected to consider any alternatives that could work if they are rejecting the request. The advice is to consider all requests seriously.”

“The onus with these changes is now on the employer to start from the premise that they should grant the request… The advice is to consider all requests seriously.”

Saying no to a request for flexible working hours

Under the new laws, an employer can only reject a request where it doesn’t meet certain criteria, avoiding any kind of discrimination. The allowable reasons for denying a request include:

  • The burden of additional costs.
  • A detrimental effect on your ability to meet customer demand.
  • The inability to reorganise work among existing staff.
  • The inability to recruit additional staff.
  • A detrimental impact on quality.
  • A detrimental impact on performance.

Making it happen in your workplace

To ensure the new scheme integrates seamlessly into your business and benefits your productivity, Julie Edmonds, senior associate at Loch Associates, recommends the following:

  1. Start by discussing the options with employees

Before inviting staff to apply for flexible working hours, it’s important to discuss with them the impact of requesting a change of hours or working environment. For example, will it put extra burden on other staff? Will the company lose money as a result of the change? Will other staff want to reduce hours in the same way? If the latter is true, is it likely to cause discrimination issues if you are not able to grant all employees similar arrangements?

Also make sure to explain the reasons why employers are within their rights to reject requests and what you expect from staff if their request is granted.

  1. Draw up written guidelines

Once all parties – including senior management, line managers and employees – are clear on what’s involved, draw up a set of written guidelines. This should include how employees make a request (in writing), the possible reasons for rejection and what you expect from them should their request be granted.

  1. Review flexible arrangements regularly

Make sure to regularly review the progress of staff with flexible hours, including their day-to-day performance and how the arrangements are affecting other staff. If you find that an employee’s performance has dropped, discuss how their productivity can be improved and develop an achievable plan of action.

Be fair and consider the options

The government’s new ruling allowing employees to ask for flexible working hours can benefit the company by improving the employee’s morale, but it’s important that employers implement the strategy in a fair way to avoid any accusations of discrimination.

Additionally, remember that you do have the option to say no, but ensure you have good, justifiable reasons to do so and it does not go against your policy, which all employees should be able to access.

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