Employees will be entitled to request flexible working from the first day of their job under government proposals revealed today, while carers will receive the right to a week’s unpaid leave. The consultation, reported by Personnel Today last week, has been widely anticipated but unions have accused ministers of merely ‘tinkering around the edges’.
The Department for Business, Enterprise and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said every employee will be able to make one request for flexible working per year, regardless of when they started their job, under plans to “modernise” employment.
Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said: “Empowering workers to have more say over where and when they work makes for more productive businesses and happier employees.
“It was once considered a ‘nice to have’, but by making requests a day-one right, we’re making flexible working part of the DNA of businesses across the country.
“A more engaged and productive workforce, a higher calibre of applicants and better retention rates – the business case for flexible working is compelling.”
Currently, employees only gain the right to request flexible working after 26 weeks in their role. This includes requests to work from home and for alternative working patterns such as flexitime and compressed, annualised and staggered hours.
A consultation on the proposals, which will run until 1 December 2021, also considers whether to cut the three-month period that an employer has to decide the outcome of an employee’s flexible working application.
If an organisation cannot accommodate a request it would need to consider alternatives. For example, if it couldn’t change the employee’s hours on all working days, BEIS suggested it could consider making the change for certain days instead.
BEIS said an employer would still be able to reject an application if it has “sound business reasons” for doing so.
It plans to launch a call for evidence to consider the ad-hoc or informal flexibility workers may need, such as time off for a one-off appointment, instead of a contractual change to their working arrangements.
The government hopes the change, if taken forward by legislation, would open up more opportunities for people with disabilities, new parents and carers.
This week the Centre for Economics and Business Research found greater adoption of flexible and hybrid working practices could open up the jobs market to almost four million people.
CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese said the change would improve inclusion, including for workplaces where options such as home working are not possible.
“Learning from the pandemic, many organisations are now open to more hybrid ways of working which give their employees greater say over where and how they work. But the reality for those whose roles can only be done at their place of work – such as restaurants, warehouses or hospitals – is that they often have very little flexibility,” he said.
Instead of tinkering around the edges, ministers should change the law so that workers have the legal right to work flexibly from the first day in the job. The right to ask nicely is no right at all” – Frances O’Grady, TUC
‘Free rein’ to reject requests
However, the TUC said the government’s plans were merely “tinkering around the edges” as employers would still have “free rein” to turn down employee’s requests.
“Instead of tinkering around the edges, ministers should change the law so that workers have the legal right to work flexibly from the first day in the job. The right to ask nicely is no right at all,” said general secretary Frances O’Grady.
“Not all jobs can support every kind of flexible working – but all jobs can support some kind of flexible working. And all job adverts should make clear what kind of flexibility is available.”
BEIS claimed that 87% of people want to work flexibly and nine in 10 employees consider flexible working a key motivator to their productivity at work. Furthermore, a CBI survey found that 99% of businesses believed that a flexible workforce is vital or important to competitiveness and the prospects for business investment and job creation.
Tim Bailey, CEO at Zurich UK, said enabling more employees to work flexibly will allow employers to access a wider talent pool and will help people progress into higher-paid roles while fulfilling their other commitments.
“As the first company in the UK to advertise all vacancies with the option of part time, full time, job share or flexible working, we’ve seen more than double the number of applicants from men and women for new roles,” he said.
Carer’s unpaid leave
The government has also confirmed it will give unpaid carers one week’s unpaid leave per year from their first day of employment, following a consultation last year.
By introducing one week of additional leave for unpaid carers, we will give these unsung heroes greater flexibility to help them better manage their personal and working lives, while giving them greater access to the job market” – Paul Scully, labour markets minister
The leave will be available to take flexibly, from half a day to a whole week. The notice period for taking the leave will be in line with the annual leave notice period, which is twice the length of time being requested, plus one day.
Labour markets minister Paul Scully said: “Millions of people face the dual challenge of balancing full or part-time work with other responsibilities such as caring for loved ones.
“By introducing one week of additional leave for unpaid carers, we will give these unsung heroes greater flexibility to help them better manage their personal and working lives, while giving them greater access to the job market.”
Carers UK chief executive Helen Walker said around 600 people gave up work each day in order to care for a loved one.
“Giving employees with caring responsibilities a legal right to unpaid carer’s leave and the ability to request flexible working from day one of starting their job is an important step forward for UK workers and could make a difference to millions – enabling carers to support their relatives whilst staying in work, maintaining social connections and improving their financial stability,” she said.
The TUC’s Frances O’Grady said a statutory right to carer’s leave was “long overdue”. “But for carer’s leave to play a genuine role, it is vital that it is paid – or it will just be a luxury for those that can afford it. The TUC is calling for 10 days’ paid carer’s leave for all workers from their first day in a job,” she said.