Writing in The Times today, James Dyson, chief engineer and founder of technology firm Dyson, has strongly criticised the government’s enshrining of a day one right to request flexible working (as opposed to after 26 weeks of continuous employment).
Dyson criticised the “big government” move, saying it would “hamper employers’ ability to organise their workforce as they judge fit in a competitive world”.
He added that high growth companies would think twice before investing in the UK where they had “little control over how and where” staff work and predicted that minister’s approach would lead to friction between employers and employees. “Factory workers, bus drivers and retail staff cannot work from home – so the government is deepening the divide, creating a highly invidious two-tier workforce”, Dyson said.
Working from home only had superficial attraction for people in the short term, wrote Dyson, whereas employers were aware of the “huge damage it does to companies and employees alike”.
Enforcement of flexible working requests
There was irony in the fact, in Dyson’s view, that just as people had started to returning to commuting, the government had chosen this moment “to climb aboard a bandwagon heading in the opposite direction”. He dismissed this as “pure populism”.
Dyson went on to say that “Businesses must already jump through hoops to prove that a basis for refusing a request for flexible working falls within one of eight reasons. The process alone of tackling each request is time-consuming and costly.”
Outside of the UK Dyson was able to organise when and where staff performed their roles. “In no other country have we experienced such overreach in terms of the government telling us how to organise our business. To impose this policy during what is likely to be one of the worst recessions on record is economically illiterate and staggeringly self-defeating.”
He predicted that Britain would become less competitive than other countries as a result of the policy.
The new law has also been attacked from the opposite point of view with many claiming that it doesn’t go far enough. Darren Jones MP, chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, said earlier this week: “Updating labour laws to reflect more flexible working is welcome, but as ever, these laws only matter if they are used.”
Emma Thomson, associate at employment law firm Ogletree Deakins, pointed out among other things that Dyson had ignored the fact that businesses retained the right to reject requests under the new law.
She said: “Even with the government’s changes, businesses will still have an opportunity to decline flexible working requests if there will be significant disruption to their business and other colleagues, or if there are further costs involved. However, the changes do require businesses to propose alternative solutions which will go a long way with retaining staff.”
She added that Dyson’s comments were not consistent with the post-Covid world. “A world of lockdowns has proved that businesses can still be productive and profitable when employees are allowed to work from home, or have a more flexible working schedule. More and more businesses are benefiting from higher productivity and staff retention as a result and with a recession, these things are key. Furthermore, collaboration with colleagues is not declining, with businesses adapting to virtual meetings and get-togethers.”
However, Stephen Morrall, partner in the business services department at Hunters Law, provided a degree of support for Dyson: “I agree with Sir James Dyson’s comment that introducing a day-one right to request flexible working will generate friction between employers and employees. Employers can reasonably expect new joiners to want to work hard and integrate into the business. It is counter-productive to introduce an additional ground for conflict with their employees. If the employer refuses the request, the employee will only feel resentful. It is difficult to understand why the change is being proposed now, other than as a populist measure.
“Flexible working does not suit all businesses and only time will tell what its effects will be on efficiency, cohesion within the workforce, company ethos and, ultimately, the success of businesses.”