“Never in human history has the number of flexible working requests landing on the desks of employers and HR professionals been as high as it is today. Having grown accustomed to the work-life balance experienced during the pandemic and reticent to return to the office, employees are keen to reduce hours, start later, finish earlier, change locations, and phase their retirement.
Are you ready to handle those requests?
In this article we’ll give you a helping hand, highlighting the main reasons for their requests, how their requests relate to the law, what steps you can take to make sure you are considering any requests fairly, and the benefits that you could reap if you approve your employees’ requests.
Want to know more? We invite you to read on.”
When we use the term ‘flexible working’, what do you think of?
Perhaps you have an image of a poolside deckchair, in which you relax with a laptop in front of you and perhaps a glass of something cold and refreshing beside you. Very rarely is that the reality. Instead, it is a concept that allows life – and our mental wellbeing – to fit around our work a little easier.
The more realistic representation of flexible working might be a young carer whose time is divided between the office and looking after a loved one, or an employee moving hundreds of miles away from their workplace – far from an easy commute.
Requests relate to how you work, where you work, and when you work.
And flexible working requests are far from a new phenomenon. After all, having lived through the pandemic and its disruption to the working world, you probably remember leaving the office behind and fielding calls at your kitchen table.
Covid-19 is, thankfully, in our rearview mirror, and it seems like a distant memory to us now. So why are we talking about flexible working when the biggest driver of that concept is now behind us?
Because the desire to take up flexible work isn’t going away. In fact, an average of 87% of employees in the UK would like to work flexibly if they aren’t already doing so. It’s a major employment benefit and a great way to attract a higher quality of candidate to your business.
Taking a step back and adopting an economy-wide perspective, the increasingly aged populations of countries like Italy, Germany, Spain and the UK are putting pressure on the workforce, creating shortfalls here, there, and everywhere. In response, the UK government, for example, is currently passing legislation to make it far easier for employees to request flexible working – part of which could be phased retirement – to keep people in work for longer.
So how should you, as an employer or team of HR consultants handle the rise in flexible working requests from employees? We’ve outlined the key facts you need to know, and a few of the ways that flexible working can impact on your business.
Let’s start with a fundamental question.
Why has there been a rise in flexible working requests?
According to a study conducted at the height of the pandemic, 86% of participants had been working from home at one point during Covid-19. That figure contrasts heavily with the six percent who were able to do so before 2020.
The majority of those surveyed in the first study said that they would prefer to work more flexibly in the future, including 52% of all parents and 66% of non-parents. The reasons included having benefitting from a better work/life balance, as well as increased wellbeing and productivity whilst working from home.
The rise in home and flexible working has shown a number of benefits for employers and employees alike. Being open to different preferences and schedules can help to attract talent, improve employee job satisfaction and loyalty, reduce absenteeism and enhance productivity.
In fact, productivity can be boosted by as much as 47%, illustrating the amount of work you can get done when not surrounded by office politics and watercooler chit chat.
What are the flexible working options open to your employees?
Some employees will have a legal statutory right to ask for a change to their contract with a ‘flexible working request’ (more on this later). There are a number of flexible working options that employees may request, including:
- Part-time working: reducing one’s hours, often by working fewer days a week;
- Flexitime: changing or choosing one’s start and finish time, often whilst maintaining a core set of hours (such as 10am – 3pm);
- Compressed hours: do one’s hours in fewer days, with longer blocks of time to fulfil the full-time hours;
- Job sharing: a form of part-time working where two or more people share the responsibility for a job between them and split the hours;
- Remote working: work from home or elsewhere, all or part of the time;
- Staggered hours: having different start, finish and break times to other employees;
- Hybrid working: based in the office some of the week and work remotely for the remainder.
What is the lawful process for requesting flexible working?
While employers and employees are free to have informal discussions about flexible working (irrespective of length of service and employment status), both parties should be aware of the statutory framework governing the regime.
Employees with more than 26 weeks’ service have a statutory right to request flexible working, limited to one request in a 12-month period. However, employees can still make non-statutory flexible working requests if they don’t meet this service criteria.
If this is a reasonable adjustment request, the employee should state that, and consider the Equality Act 2010. This is because the request will have been made to remove or reduce a disadvantage related to an employee’s disability when doing their job. For example, an employee with epilepsy might struggle with a lack of energy in the mornings, and request that they start their working hours later in the day.
Employers should follow a formal procedure, with requests made in writing to ensure a full understanding of the request and its implications. They then have three months to complete the consideration of requests, including appeals, and must deal with them in a reasonable manner.
The employer should arrange to meet the employee as part of this process, and allow them to be accompanied by a work colleague or trade union rep, as set out in the Acas Code of Practice.
Consulting with employees may enable a resolution beneficial to both the employee and the business. Keep in mind any features of a request (e.g. caring obligations or disabilities) to avoid successful unlawful discrimination claims if the employee’s request is rejected.
How should you reach a decision on flexible working requests?
When it comes to deciding the outcome of a request, you, as an employer, have three options:
- Agree trial period before a final decision;
If you agree to a trial period, it’s important that you set a review date for when the changes can be made permanent or rejected/altered. If rejecting the request, you must include reasons that fall under acceptable grounds to reject, such as the burden of additional costs; inability to reorganise work or recruit additional staff; detrimental impact on quality of performance; inability to meet customer demand; lack of work during proposed working times; or planned structural changes to the business.
Considerations for employers
When it comes to flexible requests relating to remote or hybrid working, there are a few factors that employers will need to consider. These include:
- Data protection: protection of confidential information, such as when an employee might be working in a shared house or on a train;
- Health and safety: homes are the new workplaces, so they need to be safe for employees;
- Capability and coverage: ensuring there are enough staff to cover workloads;
- Hours monitoring: using tech and other tools to ensure that people are working when they should be.
More generally, it is also worth considering that many organisations are now encouraging a culture of flexible working as much as possible. If you are able to accommodate flexible working, you should ensure that you are sharing these practices with all employees, whilst remaining fair and consistent. To achieve this, you may need to:
- Revisit your flexible working policies to ensure they accurately reflect the options available;
- Communicate to dispel myths around what flexible working is and who it is for;
- Try to encourage a creative approach to flexible working for all employees;
- Aim to hire flexibly and design the jobs to suit the flexible pattern;
- Ensure ongoing access to development and career conversations for flexible workers;
- Measure and evaluate flexible working, and learn from trials using quantitative and qualitative measures.
Remote working during the pandemic has caused employers and employees alike to re-evaluate how, where and when they work. People are realising the benefits of having an improved work/life balance, and how this can translate to better job satisfaction and a boost in productivity.
As an employer or line manager, communicating the different types of flexible work options is vital in managing employees’ requests in a fair and consistent manner, especially for roles which historically do not lend themselves to working remotely. Remember – flexible working is possible across many sectors, industries and job roles, but it’s important that you follow the lawful, statutory process in order to deal with these requests fairly.
Going forward, consider making flexible working requests a right for all employees from their first day. By doing so, you are demonstrating your trust in people to work how, when and where they perform best, and creating a happier, healthier and more productive workforce. Moreover, you’ll be demonstrating your credentials as a forward-thinking organisation – increasing your chances of attracting the best and most diverse talent.