Flexible working is on the increase – but not in every workplace. A recent survey by the charity Working Families revealed that some employers are failing to meet statutory requirements. Over a third of employees say that they cannot access flexible working - despite having a legal right to request it. Flexible working is a complex issue for employers, but when handled correctly it can bring huge business benefits, improving staff wellbeing, cutting costs and boosting productivity.
Our short employer’s guide to flexible working will provide you with up-to-date information about your obligations, the different types of flexible working and how to handle employee requests, signposting useful resources along the way.
What is flexible working?
Flexible working is a way of working that suits an employee’s needs. It usually involves a change to the typical working pattern in an organisation.
Different types of flexible working
The most common types of flexible working are:
Remote working – working from home or another location for part or all of the time
Term time / school hours working – part time working during school term times
Job sharing – sharing a single role between two people
Compressed hours – working the same number of hours over fewer days
Annualised hours – working a fixed number of annual hours flexibly over 12 months
Flexitime – working core hours with flexible start and finish times
Staggered hours – later or earlier start times without core working hours
What rights do employees have?
All employees with 26 weeks' service have a legal right to request a change to their hours, timing or location of work. This is known as a ‘statutory request’, and it falls under the Employment Rights Act 1996.
Workers making a request should email or write a letter to their employer. Employers may provide a standard application form which can be found on the Gov.uk website here.
Employee applications must include an explanation of how they think flexible working will affect the business and how this could be dealt with, for example, if they’re not at work on certain days. Employees can only make one application for flexible working each year.
What are an employer’s obligations?
Employers must follow strict legal procedures in dealing with flexible working requests. A decision must be made within 3 months. Government guidelines state that all requests must be considered in a ‘reasonable manner’. The ACAS Code of Practice for Handling Requests in a Reasonable Manner gives further guidance on this.
What should employers do when they receive a request?
- Discuss with your employee Arrange to talk with your employee as soon as possible. Allow them to bring a colleague along and encourage an open and honest discussion. This will give you a better idea of what the request might mean for your business.
- Consider the request fairly Assess the advantages and disadvantages of the application. What are the benefits of the requested changes both for the employee and your business? What are the drawbacks?
Business benefits of flexible working
Flexible working can bring a surprising number of benefits to businesses. When considering a request, it can be helpful to think about:
- Productivity: Research has shown that remote workers are more productive than those who are office based. Less distraction means improved focus. Flexible arrangements such as annualised hours can also help businesses to meet peaks and troughs
- Cost: flexible working can reduce overheads. Lambeth Council reports saving £4.5million on rents each year since allowing employees to work from home
- Environment: Remote or part time working means lower carbon emissions for employees and businesses
- Expertise: Job sharing effectively provides 2 experts for the price of one
- Staff morale & wellbeing: a 2017 HSBC study revealed that flexible working was more likely to motivate employees than pay rises or bonuses.
Accepting a request
If you decide to accept the request, you should write to the employee asap with:
- a summary of the agreed changes
- a start date for flexible working
- a new contract and terms and conditions.
This should be done within 28 days.
Turning down a request
Requests can only be turned down if employers can prove significant negative business impact. This might include factors such as:
- the burden of extra costs
- an inability to reorganise work or recruit additional staff
- a detrimental impact on quality or performance
ACAS also points out that employers must not discriminate unlawfully against the employee in reaching their decision. Take particular care that you can justify turning down a request when the employee making it has a protected characteristic under the 2010 Equality Act. If you decide to turn down a request you must inform the employee in writing, providing an explanation.
Employees don’t have a statutory right to an appeal. But it’s considered good practice for employers to offer an appeals process. This helps to show that you have handled the request in a ‘reasonable manner’. It’s also good practice to have a Flexible Working Policy, which sets out exactly how you will handle employee requests.
Do employers have to consider informal requests for flexible working?
Informal applications are not covered by flexible working legislation. However, it is generally considered best practice to give serious consideration to all requests. It’s a good idea to ask employees to follow up with a formal letter, email or application.
The future of work is changing, and as we strive to find the perfect life balance, requests for flexible working will almost certainly increase. A major report by the CIPD earlier this year showed that there is a strong, unmet demand for more flexible jobs. 87% of people want to work flexibly, but only 11% of jobs are advertised as being flexible. Employers that don’t offer flexible working may soon fall behind.
Find out more about flexible working rights and benefits on the CIPD website here.