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Is flexible working an easy thing to incorporate in a business?

Diane Hall


Flexible working hours

A ruling last week gave employees the right to ask for flexible working arrangements from the first day in a new job, as opposed to waiting a period of six months, which used to be the point when an employer had to take an employee’s request seriously.

Given the success of flexible working patterns, and the rise in productivity levels, when employees were forced to work from home during the pandemic, it’s easy to see why there is currently a much stronger buy-in to look at the business case for permanent remote working.

However, homeworking is only suitable for certain types of jobs. And flexible working also covers the right to ask for the sharing of hours with a colleague, requests to be part-time, or staggered starting/finishing times, for example. The new legislation constitutes a double-whammy, in that it also restricts the reasons on which flexible working requests can be refused.

Blurred image of child using crayons

Blurred image of child using crayons

The cost of childcare has soared since the pandemic, and fewer grandparents are retired and able to look after their grandchildren (should they even want to in the first place); this makes it difficult for working parents to earn a decent wage once childcare costs come into play. Being able to ask for part-time hours or staggering work start/end times can help parents juggle their work around school hours and each other—reducing the need for nurseries, childminders or before/after school clubs.

Alice Thompson’s recent court case shows that some companies fail to even consider flexible working, despite there being no real reason not to do so. Alice asked her employer for flexible hours in the form of shorter working days and a four-day week, so that she could pick her daughter up from nursery and not have to resort to further childcare options to cover her working hours. Her request wasn’t just rejected; the estate agency she worked for wouldn’t even think about it. Their apathy resulted in Alice winning £185,000 from the company at an employment tribunal.

According to an interview with Alice by BBC News, her manager said they couldn't afford for her to work part time. She says, ‘I made a request for flexible working that wasn't seriously considered. I proposed what would have worked for me. If that didn't work for the company, I would have been more than happy to hear a counter offer, i.e. what might work for them. If they needed me for the full hours—maybe eight 'til five instead of nine 'til six—that's something I could have worked around. But the conversation was shut down—every avenue, not listened to, not considered. And I was left with no other option but to resign.’ She adds, ‘How are mums meant to have careers and families? It's 2021 not 1971.’

Employers will still be able to refuse flexible working requests under the new laws, but they will have to show that their employee’s suggestions are unworkable and that they would have a detrimental impact on the business; they will also be required to come up with a workable alternative. Though the latter isn’t enforceable by law as such, the company could find itself on shaky ground and out of pocket if their employee took them to a tribunal—like Alice did, above. The new ruling will also insist on quicker decisions by employers; the previous grace period to consider flexible working requests was three months, but what this has been reduced to isn’t yet clear.

Gavel on a wooden desk with law books in the background

Gavel on a wooden desk with law books in the background

The change in law is something many industry and professional bodies have been campaigning for over recent years. They believe that flexible working better suits modern life, and that technology affords more options to carry out some roles anywhere, anytime. The drive for a better work/life balance has also been a motivator behind this overhaul in working practices. Our downtime, social lives and hobbies have more prominence today than they may have done a few decades ago. In 2021, few people live to work, rather, they ‘work to live’. The various options that come under flexible working arrangements support many different lifestyles—in particular, those of working parents, the disabled and people in rural areas/those with poor transport links.

The impact this move will have on companies is yet to be seen. Though I am definitely for employees having a right to flexibility in their working patterns and where they complete their work, I can also see a lot of work on the side of employers, who may have to increase the size of their workforce and adapt their routines to meet any flexibility requests they agree to. Again, that’s not to say this is a bad thing, but there’s no doubt that adjustments will need to be made, some policies will require updating, and new practices will need incorporating.

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