Flexible working requests are not new in the workplace but have been thrown into the limelight following the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
After more than a year of home working, UK employers are anticipating an influx of flexible working requests as restrictions lift and staff begin to return to the office.
Working from home and other flexible alternatives can, with effective planning, be beneficial. Employees are now increasingly prioritising the working flexibly, with nine in 10 people surveyed by EY earlier this year saying that they wanted more flexibility about when or where they work as pandemic restrictions are easing.
Only 22% said that they would opt for a “traditional” full-time office based working week, with employees seeking to work from home between two and three days a week, and 33% saying they want a shorter working week altogether.
So, what exactly is meant by “flexi-working”?
Flexible working can refer to a variety of arrangements including part-time work, ‘compressed hours’ over fewer days, remote working, ‘flexitime’ and job-sharing arrangements.
Employers have a duty to deal with requests in a reasonable manner and can only reject the request for one or more of the eight business grounds specified in the legislation.
Employers should take this opportunity to review their flexible working policies in preparation for a potential increase in requests and ensure that any changes following their experience during the pandemic are accurately reflected.
Why is offering “flex-working” important?
For businesses to continue to adapt with changes as a result of COVID-19, especially as a sharp rebound in demand for labour since the beginning of 2021 and a notable fall in the supply of workers. As demand rises and supply falls it’s crucial to retain and attract talent in this increasingly competitive market.
While many employees will be keen to return to the others will have seen some benefits from their experiences during Covid-19 – for example, developing a better work-life balance without a long commute. A flexible working request may offer those employees the opportunity to formalise new working patterns.
The right to request flexible working
The legal position is that all employees with at least 26 weeks’ continuous employment are able to make a statutory request for flexible working, in writing, for any reason. A new request can be made once every 12 months.
Where a request is made, the employer must deal with that request in a reasonable manner and notify the employee of the outcome, including any appeal, within a three-month period, unless that timeframe is extended by mutual agreement.
If the employer wishes to reject a statutory request, it can only do so on one of the statutory grounds:
burden of additional costs;
inability to reorganise work among existing staff;
inability to recruit additional staff;
detrimental impact on quality;
detrimental impact on performance;
detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand;
insufficient work for the periods the employee proposes to work; and
a planned structural change to the business.
Employers who have sought to postpone dealing with flexible working requests due to the uncertainty around Covid-19 restrictions should note the three-month time limit for dealing with requests, which is a legislative requirement.
Be open to exploring alternative approaches
If the proposed working pattern in the application cannot be accommodated, employers should consider alternative ways to meet the employee's objectives. It may be possible to agree to a time-limited change or consider whether the employee’s short-term needs can be met by taking annual leave. Trial periods can also be beneficial to both parties.
Is flexible working the future?
Even after restrictions have been fully lifted, it is expected that many employees will be making requests with a view to being able to continue working flexibly in some form. In doing so, they may point to the success of the extensive ‘trial period’ imposed by lockdown as evidence as to why such requests should be granted – particularly if they can demonstrate that this has had an increased effect on performance and/or productivity.
The rigid five-day office week has become, for many, something of a blast from the pre-pandemic past. Just how fleeting this sentiment is remains uncertain at present, and so the question stands: is the future of work truly flexible?