Be flexible enough to go beyond the law

Six million people aged 16 or over are estimated to care for sick, disabled or elderly people. Following the government’s recent announcement, most of them will be entitled to request flexible working arrangements.

The new entitlement, which comes into effect from 6 April 2007, is part of a package of measures aimed at providing more choice for families over how they balance work and caring responsibilities.

While the parents of children under the age of six, or disabled children under the age of 18, are currently entitled to request flexible working arrangements, this right will be extended to those who care for adults. The definition is not as wide as carers’ groups had hoped, but the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) still estimates it will cover about 80% of carers.

During consultation on this extension, the DTI also sought to establish whether the same right should be granted to the parents of non-disabled children between the ages of six and 18. To the annoyance of many, it has been decided there is an insufficient case to do so at this time, even though the Equal Opportunities Commission recently recommended that the right to request flexible working should be extended to all employees.

Flexible benefits

Flexible working is undoubtedly good for families, enabling them to spend time together, while allowing individuals to contribute to the household income. It also benefits staff, by helping them find a good work-life balance. Just as importantly, it also adds up well for employers, who benefit from improved recruitment and retention rates, along with improved morale and productivity.

Given the benefits flexible working can bring, employers should use the carers extension as a catalyst to consider broadening the availability of the right, beyond the minimum required by the law.

Buy-in from line managers will be essential for any organisation considering such a move, and it may be necessary to tackle the common misconception that working flexibly necessarily involves working less than full-time hours. Quite often, a rearrangement of working time is all that is needed.

So, for example, while flexitime means staff can choose when they work – usually around a core hours framework – they must still work a set number of hours. Similarly, a ‘compressed hours’ structure allows employees to work longer hours over fewer days, to reach the same total.

Other arrangements may bring other hidden benefits. For example, job sharing delivers the skills and experience of two employees, essentially for the price of one.

Whatever the practical specifics, the success of existing flexible working rules demonstrates the positive impact these new entitlements will have on carers. The most recent DTI Flexible Working Employee Survey found that almost a quarter of staff with dependent children under six had requested to work flexibly in the past two years and, significantly, that four-fifths of these requests were accepted.

Recipe for success

While fear of the unknown should not hold employers back, it is advisable to agree a trial period for any new arrangement, to help ensure it actually works in practice for both employer and employee, before a permanent change to terms and conditions takes effect.

If employers are to make flexible working succeed, they must adopt a mindset that views productivity in terms of output (getting the job done) rather than input (number of hours worked). Employers will then be able to assess the potential benefits for their organisation. Although the carers of adults will be the priority group for policy development in the lead up to April, casting the net wider may reap richer rewards.

How is a ‘carer’ defined?

The definition of ‘carer’ will cover any employee who is or expects to be caring for an adult who:

  • they are married to, or is their partner or civil partner.

  • is a ‘near relative’ of the employee, including: parents, parents-in-law, adult children, adopted adult children, siblings (including those who are in-laws), uncles, aunts, grandparents and step-relatives.

  • lives at the same address as the employee.

By Lindsey Cartwright, partner, Maclay Murray & Spens

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