Changes in legislation on flexible working are coming into force. Eleanor Deem explains how employers can best deal with employees’ requests.

Photo of a man working from home with a child

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Currently employees who either have children under 17 (or 18 for disabled children) or are carers can request changes to their terms and conditions as a flexible working request. But from the end of this month (30 June) the right to request flexible working is being extended to all employees with at least 26 weeks' service. At the same time, the rather restrictive statutory procedure for considering flexible working requests will be replaced by a more flexible requirement to use a ‘reasonable’ procedure.

Although parents and carers remain the most likely groups to request flexible working, employers should prepare for more requests and ensure they have the right procedure in place to deal with them.

Although employers are not obliged to agree to requests, they must consider them carefully and properly

Flexible working requests might include a request to reduce hours, job share, fix variable shifts, change working patterns or work from home. Although employers are not obliged to agree to requests, they must consider them carefully and properly, and if they need to refuse the request, give at least one of a number of specific appropriate business reasons for that refusal:

  • Extra costs will damage the business.
  • The business won’t be able to meet customer demand.
  • The work can’t be reorganised among other staff.
  • Flexible working will have an effect on quality and performance.
  • There’s a lack of work to do during the proposed working times.
  • The business is planning changes to the workforce.

The good news is that if you can agree flexible working requests, there are some serious business benefits. Employers who are flexible and encourage a good work/life balance are valued by employees and sought out by job hunters. Allowing employees to vary their hours or work from home to fit in around their personal or family commitments can build up a lot of goodwill and result in dedicated, motivated employees. It can help you retain good staff who might otherwise feel the need to look elsewhere, and may also reduce the risk of unplanned absence for family reasons.

If an employee puts in a flexible working request, you should discuss it with them. Hold a meeting, and allow the employee to bring a colleague with them for support if they wish. Make sure you explore the changes the employee is asking for and find out whether they have considered the impact their proposed change will have on the business. Sensible employees will have anticipated queries or concerns you may have, and will be ready with a solution.

Flexible working discussions often result in compromise, so if there is a particular aspect of your employee’s request that concerns you, consider whether there is an alternative you could discuss with them. Finding a solution which works for both you and the employee is the best outcome all round.

Each request should be considered on an individual basis, so the fact that you have agreed something for one employee does not then compel you to agree similar requests by other staff later down the line. However, if an employee making a request to reduce their hours can see that a similar arrangement works really well elsewhere in the organisation, they may refer to this as evidence that their request is workable.

If you are not sure whether an arrangement would work you can discuss the possibility of a trial period with your employee of three or six months to test it out. There is a significant motivation for employees to accept trial periods, as it gives them the opportunity to prove that the arrangement will not negatively impact on you as an employer. It obviously then becomes more difficult for the request to be ultimately refused. So perhaps consider trial periods only if you do intend to agree the request unless major hiccups are uncovered.

If you do need to refuse the request, make sure you do so only after you have properly discussed and considered it, that you give one of the acceptable business reasons for refusal and that you explain exactly why that business reason applies in the employee’s case. Give your refusal in a timely manner and give the employee the opportunity to appeal the decision if they wish.

Unless specifically agreed otherwise with your employee, flexible working requests which are agreed result in permanent changes to terms and conditions. You need to make sure the change is confirmed in writing, but also need to remember that you cannot revoke your agreement at a later stage. On the other hand, this also means that employees do not retain the right to go back to their previous terms and conditions at a later date, so ensure your staff member is clear about that too.

So make sure you are prepared for flexible working requests in your organisation. When they come, consider them carefully and discuss the implications with your employee. Agree the requests if you can, and if you can’t, explore the possibility of compromise before refusing altogether. Finding an approach to flexible working which enables a good work/life balance will help you retain and motivate key staff as well as enhance your reputation as a good employer.

Eleanor Deem is Managing Director of face2faceHR.

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