Will flexible working rights trigger a change in workplace culture?
Employers may benefit from more productive staff and fewer absences – but could also be left vulnerable to discrimination claims
Any worker who has been on the payroll of their employer for at least 26 weeks can now ask for a change to their working patterns, thanks to a change of law that came into force yesterday that has made flexible working available to all staff. Allowing staffers to transform a standard five-day working week into – for example – three or four days with the remaining days spent working from home, the new law gives staff one “flexibility request” per year that management is legally obliged to consider. Managers must also provide a reasonable explanation if they reject a staff member’s request.
For many UK offices, flexible working is not new. Under the previous legislation, it was available to parents of children under 16, or those registered as carers of adults. However, the latest reforms are motivated by the government’s desire to create an environment for workers that makes a better fit for their home life. The extension to flexible-working rules comes just 10 months before the introduction of “parental leave” which, from next April, will combine maternity and paternity arrangements into one package. Working couples will have the option to share up to 50 weeks’ leave and 37 weeks’ pay in the first year of their new child’s life.
The government predicts that businesses will benefit to the tune of £475 million in the first 10 years of the new flexibility arrangements alone, due to increased productivity, lower labour turnover and reduced absenteeism. It is also thought that the law will also have a broader impact in terms of lowering unemployment and improving employees’ health and wellbeing.
A Department for Business, Innovation and Skills spokesman said: “We want these reforms to bring about a culture change in Britain’s workplaces. Family-friendly policies and economic growth can go hand in hand. Flexible working really can help employers boost productivity and profits.”
In practice, the new system stipulates that workers must set out in writing the flexible-working terms they want, explain what kind of changes to their work schedules they would entail, when they want them to start, and what affect they think they could have on the employer. It is then the job of the employer to notify requesters of its decision within three months of the request, barring an agreed extension.
Managers are expected to carve out time to hold meetings with staff members about their requests and communicate their decision as soon as possible.
Karen Mattison, founder of recruitment firm TimeWise, says that flexible working will play a vital role in boosting workplace diversity by helping to push more women into senior roles. “Businesses are realising, why don’t we have any women at a senior level?” she said. “Companies need to see flexibility as an enabler, in the path of recruiting, retaining and progressing employees. The notion that with flexibility, ambition goes out the window just isn’t true.”
However, Mattison adds that the uptake of and attitude towards flexible working will be still be largely determined by individual companies, managers or departments. “The truth is that no business is good at it,” she said. “You get pockets, or teams, where this works really, really well. It’s always down to confident leadership, an environment of trust, and an assumption that things are going to work. What you’ll find is, when you get leaders that either work flexibly themselves, or they’re just open to it, they attract the kind of talent that’s going to want to come to them because of that. Fundamentally it’s about manager trust and confidence.”
One of the major criticisms aimed at the new legislation is the potentially vulnerable position it leaves firms in for staff discrimination claims. Now that flexible working requests are the right of all staff, managers who would have previously given slight priority to wellbeing – particularly those with dependents – would be legally prevented from taking that stance.
But if a significant proportion of the workforce desires to work from home more often, how does an employer make a fair decision that doesn’t alienate their best talent? Picking names out of a hat? Possibly. “One of the main questions we’re getting from our members is: will it become illegal for me to give priority to people who are parents or carers?” said John Wastnage, head of employment at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC). “And the answer is yes. A lot of our members already offer flexible working anyway, often informally, so this change is unnecessary and it could just push up time and cost to businesses.”
The government has estimated that an extra 150 tribunal cases will be brought to the fore every year in light of the flexible-working changes, each costing employers an average of £5,900. This would represent a 50%-plus increase on the 277 tribunal cases brought for those reasons in 2010 to 2011. The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) is worried that the law change could send the wrong message to workers.
“While the new procedure is designed to be light-touch, inevitably it will entail additional administration that the smallest of businesses will have to learn and may struggle to apply,” said FSB chairman John Allan. “Where requests are declined, our experience shows the ‘right to request’ can introduce an unwelcome negative dynamic into the workplace.”
For more thoughts on the modern workplace, download a CMI policy paper on the topic.