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Flexible working changes - a smorgasbord of opinions on right to request

30th Jun 2014

From today, 20 million people (according to BIS) now have the right to request flexible working from their employer. BIS have said that over half of businesses who allow flexible working see improved relationships, 40% report productivity boost and 38% see drop in staff absence.

The salient points:

  • The change affects those who have over six months’ service
  • Previously, only parents were able to request flexible working

HR professionals, want to get up to speed and compliant as soon as possible? Check out the draft Acas code of practice on handling in a reasonable manner requests to work flexibly.

What’s everyone saying about the changes?

COSMIC POWER FOR THE LINE MANAGER – BUT HR IS CATALYST

Our research and day to day experience tells us that flexibility is driven by line managers, not legislation. They are the community that has to be influenced and changed in order for a business to become more flexible and to make the flexibility work. However, the new legislation can be used as an event or a trigger for HR team to increase the profile of flexibility, its benefits and the company’s aims and objectives around becoming more flexible, more responsive to customers and more adaptable in the market. Organisational and resource flexibility is one strategic area where HR must show leadership on behalf of the business. They are the only team that can lead the way and they can use the new legislation as support in saying “It’s not about parents and employee benefits, it’s about being flexible for our customers, about controlling costs and being more adaptable.” –John O’Sullivan, Founder, Ten2Two

GIVE ME A REASON!

Many employers already have a flexible working policy that is open to everyone but is it preferable to go further and deal with all requests ‘blind’ – i.e. avoid asking any questions about why the employee is making the request? If no reason is given, in theory, employers will accept or reject a request purely on the basis of the ability of the business to accommodate the alternative working pattern. This approach has its attractions and obviously minimises the scope for a direct discrimination claim to the extent there will be no subjective element in the decision-making process. However, there are drawbacks in not asking for a reason. It may be difficult for the employer to come up with a sensible alternative if it does not know the reason for the request. Also, for example, a claim for indirect sex[***] discrimination may follow from the rejection of a request to reduce working hours from a woman wanting to look after her new baby; the rejection of a request to work four days a week from a young man wanting to hone his surfing skills is unlikely to carry the same risks –Christopher Fisher, Partner / Jennifer McGrandle, Associate, Mayer Brown

CULTURE, CULTURE, CULTURE – REMEMBER THE CULTURE

While we welcome the extension of the right to request flexible working to all employees - and the best employers already do this - we are concerned that many employers may not have used this opportunity to look holistically at their organisations and how they could benefit from a more flexible culture, rather than just considering individual requests as they come up. Surveys show many employers are unaware of the changes and their implications. –Gillian Nissim, Workingmums.co.uk

CAN YOU HANDLE REJECTION?

Consider flexible working arrangements for a temporary or trial period rather than rejecting the request and risk employee resentment. But make sure to put this in writing and set review dates to discuss how the new arrangements are working. –Kevin Jones, employment law specialist, Clarke Willmott.

WHEN FLEXIBLE WORKING JUST DOESN’T WORK

We work with lots of smaller businesses who are worried what the impact will be. Many think that although they can see the benefits of offering staff more flexibility, in some industries working flexibly just doesn't work. For these businesses I am concerned that this will become an administrative and emotional burden. However on the flip side, I think for many businesses it is a great opportunity to force themselves to think what working flexibly means, and how they can pro-actively offer it in their business - it's certainly what we are doing here. –Emily Perry, Director, South Coast HR

CHILLY ATMOSPHERES ON THE HORIZON?

Because of the nature of these [small firms] businesses, there may be occasions where employers have to turn down a request, potentially leaving the staff member unhappy. That’s why employers will need practical guidance so they can manage ‘right to request’ with confidence. –John Allan, National Chairman, Federation of Small Businesses

GOODBYE, PRESENTEEISM

Today’s regulation is a welcome wake-up call to employers who haven’t opened their eyes to the merits of flexible working. Too many companies are still operating under an antiquated culture of ‘presenteeism’, where people are made to feel that their value is measured by the number of hours they’ve put in – however unproductive these might have been. The truth is that with new technologies and improved ways of working, this mindset is completely outdated - and harmful to business success. Our own research revealed that 75% of employees say they’re most productive if they can choose when and where they work. This isn’t something that businesses can ignore. With flexible working improving the wellbeing, loyalty and efficiency of employees, all businesses need to start fully appreciating the value it can bring – not just to its people, but to its bottom line. -Ann Pickering, HR Director, O2

COUPLE OF TELEGRAPH COMMENTS

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