Walsh’s flexible working recommendations: the likely impact

Imelda Walsh’s recommendations to the government on extending the right to request flexible working to parents with children under the age of 16 have come as a blow to many small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs).

But the proposals are realistic and reasonable and will not necessarily trigger the dramatic and detrimental problems that small businesses fear.

Currently, only parents with children under six years old have the right to request flexible working, and the predictions were that Walsh’s recommendations would be a compromise by initially raising the limit to parents of children under 12 (and then to 16 at some future date). However, this ‘phasing’ would not have fully satisfied either parents or business leaders.

Although the decision to seek to raise the age to 16 was a surprising and controversial one, it makes good sense.

Sixteen is the age when the vast majority of children take their GCSEs, and some parents would undoubtedly like greater flexibility than they have to support their children through their education.

The reality is that, whether they enjoy a formal legal right or not, parents are increasingly looking to their employers to recognise their need for a work-life balance and those employers who facilitate reasonable and manageable requests are likely to retain valuable talent in the longer term, which might otherwise be lost to more forward-looking competitors.

Effects on SMEs

Having said that, the concerns that have been raised by the Federation of Small Businesses and the Engineering Employers’ Federation (EEF) – which represents more than 6,000 manufacturers – are entirely understandable. They fear that employers may struggle to cope if they face a flood of demands from staff seeking to exercise their rights.

Extending the right to flexible working, at the same time as giving new employment rights to temporary workers – through whom many small businesses cover for those workers on flexible hours – is a dangerous combination, they say. Businesses that are already struggling to accommodate maternity, paternity, adoption and parental leave will feel particularly vulnerable.

Although some reports state that an extra 4.5 million parents will now be eligible, the number of parents who will actually be able, in economic terms, to take advantage of this new right with a view to reducing their work commitment is likely to be relatively low. The burden to business should be correspondingly limited. Indeed, Walsh’s report found that small businesses generally had a better record on accepting flexible working requests than larger ones.

Employers who are worried about needing full-time workers should bear in mind that flexible working means just that – it might mean working from eight to four, instead of nine to five, or working from home one day a week. It does not necessarily mean that staff will want to work part-time, or that everyone who becomes eligible will apply.

While these alternative options may still be difficult to accommodate, for example, in manufacturing, where strict rotas have to be operated, it is important to remember that employers can still decline flexible working requests, so long as they can give one of eight valid business reasons for doing so.

Consultation

The proposals from Walsh have now gone out to consultation, and it is expected that the final legislation will come into force in April 2009. It has been recommended that any change should be implemented at once, rather than a staged introduction, to avoid creating confusion for businesses and employees.

At least initially, making flexible working work may be a matter of trial and error. The present scheme is working reasonably well, with about 90% of requests for flexi-time being met.

The key to success is in ensuring that those involved are not intractable in their response. It requires the co-operation of both managers and colleagues. An open dialogue as to the likely problems and how they may be overcome requires a confident and mature approach to the issues. Ultimately, employers must have the courage of their convictions, weighing up the long-term benefits to their business by accommodating the needs of their workforce.

Key points

  • The government has accepted Imelda Walsh’s recommendations to extend the right to request flexible working to parents with children under the age of 16.
  • At present, the right to seek flexible working applies only to parents with children under six years old, or parents of disabled children under 18 and those with adult-carer responsibilities.
  • Flexible working can mean a variety of things – from flexible hours, to compressed hours, part-time working, job-share, as well as mobile and home-working.
  • Employers can decline flexible working requests, as long as they can give one of eight valid business reasons for doing so
  • The recommendations have gone to consultation, and will be implemented in April 2009.

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