11 June 2014

Flexible working changes: calling time on the normal 9-5

All employees now have the right to request flexible working. What does this mean for your business and are you ready to manage staff requests?

Changes are coming into force on 30th June, giving all employees the right to request flexible working. Is your small business ready?

Currently the right to request flexible working only extends to: parents of children under the age of 17; parents with disabled children under the age of 18; or carers, providing they’ve been employed by the business for 26 continuous weeks.

A request to work flexibly could be to change the number of hours worked, such as going part time, changing when they work, such as working a condensed week or starting work later, or it could be a wish to change where the they work.

What’s changing?

  • Eligibility is being extended. Anyone who has worked for their company for 26 continuous weeks will be able to apply to work flexibly.
  • The procedure employers have to follow when they respond to requests is changing (note that the procedure workers have to follow is staying the same). You’ll have to ‘reasonably consider’ all requests and make your decision known within three months of the application (rather than 28 days at the moment).  
    ACAS has created a guide to how to handle requests in a reasonable manner, which you can read here.

The important point to note is that the changes will give more employees the right to request a change to how they work, not the automatic right to work flexibly.

As with the current procedure, you can refuse the request if there are legitimate business reasons against it, for example, if it would increase costs for your company or if there would not be enough work to do during the times the employee wants to work. However, you will need to prove that you’ve considered the application fully and fairly.

Also unchanged is the fact that staff can only make a formal request once every 12 months.

Will there be an influx of requests?

A survey by YouGov was commissioned to estimate the impact of these changes. From the 2,000+ workers questioned, 26% said they would request flexible working when the law changes. That’s over a quarter, so a significant number of staff.

The survey also found:

  • 69% of workers have never made a flexible working request. Of these, 22% hadn’t requested it simply because they didn’t think it would be approved.
  • 63% believed working flexibly could improve their work-life balance
  • 42% said flexible working could boost staff morale, while 16% thought it would create tension at work.

According to the research, the most popular flexi-working choices would be:

  • Condensed working hours - 19%
  • Working from home - 18%
  • Part-time working- 12%
  • Time off in lieu – 12%
  • Staggered hours – 6%

Will the legislation actually affect you?

According to RSA’s Flex Factor report, only half of employees work for companies with formalised flexi-working. However, a survey by the Institute of Leadership and Management found that 94% of organisations offer some flexible options, so chances are your small business is already flexible to some degree, even if you don’t have a formal flexible working policy.

We’ve mentioned studies in previous posts that suggest flexible working can be good for both businesses and their employees. Staff can benefit from a better work-life balance, increased happiness and better focus at work. They can also save time and money if they’re not commuting as much. In return, companies can benefit from reduced costs associated with their business premises, less absenteeism and higher moral, plus reap the benefit of increased productivity. The Flex report calculated the value of the extra productive hours gained as £6.9billion!

Even if you don't think you'll be inundated with requests, you should start considering what sort of flexibility is possible within your business now (if you haven't already) and how to ensure that requests are managed consistently and fairly. For example, if you received two identical requests to work condensed hours but approving both of them would leave you short-staffed, what would you do?

Barriers to flexible working

While flexible working can bring many benefits, if it's not managed correctly, it can also cause problems, such as reduced performance and conflict between staff. Potential challenges include:

  • Poor communication. With staff working at different times or in various places, it can be harder to make sure everyone is included in discussions, meetings and events. Having shared calendars can help, as can having regular discussion times.
  • Managing staff. You don’t have to be in the same office as someone to be able to manage them. For flexibility to work, you need to trust your staff and they need to be accountable. If you measure your staff on outcomes rather than the number of hours worked, you’ll be able to see the level of work your team is putting in.
  • Security and access. You’ll need to provide the right support, so that teams can access data from outside of the workplace or at various times. However, there are plenty of tools to ensure data is kept secure and a good document management system will benefit everyone.
  • Attitudes. Some people still have outdated attitudes when it comes to others working flexibly. Derogatory remarks about ‘working from home’ can cause tension between workers, so it’s important that senior staff buy into the benefits of flexible working and that you clearly communicate behaviours that are acceptable/unacceptable.

Whatever size company your business is, the new legislation has the potential to change the normal expectation of working 9am - 5pm, so it makes sense to start thinking about how your company can adapt and benefit from it.