Impact of flexible working will be slight on business

The
new right for parents to request flexible working under the Employment Act will
not weed out employers who see it as an inconvenience to be avoided

There
has been much debate about the flexible working regulations, with some
employers – particularly those in smaller businesses – arguing that they will
have difficulty implementing the legislation. In reality, it has such a limited
scope that it is unlikely to have a dramatic impact on the workplace.

The
new regulations – which came into force on 6 April – give parents of children
under six years old or disabled children under 18 the right to apply for
flexible working, provided they have completed at least 26 weeks’ service for
their employer.

Overall,
workers have grasped the fact that the legislation does not automatically give
them the right to work flexibly, but employers must give serious consideration
to all requests.

Flexible
working is not a new phenomenon for UK business and, generally speaking,
employers able to offer flexible working arrangements already do. So in
practical terms, it is unlikely that the new legislation will dramatically
increase the number of people working flexibly.

The
legislation has been drafted in the employers’ favour, only providing the right
to ask for flexible working, and not the right to work flexibly. In its current
form, it will not weed out employers who see flexible working as an
inconvenience, as it provides nine grounds on which they can turn down a
request.

For
businesses that cannot accommodate flexible working, the regulations will
simply mean jumping through more administrative hoops before turning down the
request. The proposals could be viewed as a mere token gesture for working
parents.

The
legislation also ignores a large proportion of the workforce – those without
children. It does not even include all parents, just those with children of a
certain age. Surprisingly, parents of school-aged children have been excluded,
despite an arguably greater need for flexibility as they are governed by the
constraints of the school day.

Although
the provision for flexible working is limited, employers should not use this as
an excuse to ignore the new legislation altogether. They need to check that the
new procedures have been communicated throughout the organisation, and that
applications for flexible working are handled consistently.

It
is vital that businesses are as consistent in their approach to each flexible
working request as they would be for other areas of HR, such as grievance
procedures, recruitment and promotions. Those that fail to grasp the new
procedures could be inviting a raft of costly tribunals.

Some
employers may argue that flexible working simply isn’t practical. However, they
should be aware that the term ‘flexible working’ doesn’t just apply to
different working hours – it can mean working from home, job sharing,
flexitime, staggered hours or term-time working. The legislation will raise
awareness and increase understanding about how flexible working can operate in
practice.

Employers
concerned about the new legislation should think seriously about how flexible
working could be implemented in their firms. Many recognise flexible working is
a successful way of attracting and retaining the best staff, and already go
further than the legislation by offering flexible options to all staff
regardless of whether or not they have children.

It
could be more detrimental to lose an employee by refusing flexible working
options, than giving serious consideration to how a valued worker’s needs could
be accommodated.

By
Audrey Williams, Partner, Eversheds

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