Flexible working has been in the spotlight recently after the government announced plans to launch a massive £255m campaign to promote flexible working for carers in the workplace. The move is part of a 10-year initiative to give carers more support with employment.
All UK employees have the right to request flexible working hours under amended regulations to the Employment Right Act (1996), but it seems few organisations are promoting it. A survey by the CIPD and accountancy giant KPMG in May this year found that seven out of 10 employers “never or only occasionally” accept employee requests for flexible working.
Asda, however, is ahead of the game. The supermarket giant is pioneering a flexible working scheme and hopes to encourage all of its 165,000 UK staff to take advantage of it. Asda Flex features six flexible working options, including an unpaid three-year career break and up to 12 weeks’ paid leave for staff who wish to make an organ donation.
The programme, which was launched in May, aims to promote flexibility in every area of an employee’s life, from childcare to health, and improve work/life balance.
Colleague relations manager Chris Stone explains: “We’ve always prided ourselves on being ahead of employment law and I hope this programme reflects that. We already had a number of flexible working schemes available but we wanted to simplify and broaden them. We listened to colleagues around the business and tried to respond to what they were saying.”
Some staff who did not have children, for example, felt it was unfair that parents were offered paid time off for childcare. So Asda has introduced an option where anyone can swap shifts with their colleagues and take short-term leave or take 12 weeks’ unpaid leave.
The six categories are called: Shift swap, Me time, My lifestyle, Family first, Career break and My health. All options are geared towards helping staff plan their life around their work. Me time, for example, offers employees up to five days’ unpaid leave for anything from the arrival of a new grandchild to studying for an exam. Family First entitles all parents to take up to 52 weeks off work.
The programme is simple to run and manage. Staff put in a request to their line manager who considers the proposal and refers it to the HR team where necessary.
Stone says it has broken down any barriers that may have previously existed between different staff groups. “We’ve aligned the scheme to diversity and equality and everything that we stand for as an employer. We’ve got rid of any differences so that maternity and paternity leave now applies to adopted parents too. Anyone, regardless of age or purpose, can request to work part time.”
Stone is proud of the innovative health scheme, where employees can take up to three months’ paid leave for organ donation. “We’re one of the only employers that offers time off for organ donation and pays employees to do so. We’ve worked extensively with the NHS and local communities and have had an employee request to take 12 weeks off to donate a kidney to her brother.”
Asda promoted the flexible working programme by circulating booklets in all of its 356 UK stores, displaying posters in canteens and using its so-called “huddle process”.
“The word has spread largely through “huddle processes”, where store managers get together with staff at the end of each day to discuss any news and issues,” Stone says.
And although it’s been only a few months since the scheme was introduced, the response has been encouraging. “The feedback has been amazing and store managers have been really pleased with the response,” says Stone.
It’s not the first time the supermarket giant has responded directly to changes in employment legislation. The group used to offer additional holiday time, known as “Benidorm Leave” to staff over 50 but realised ahead of the age discrimination laws coming in in 2006 that the policy should be scrapped.
Asda is monitoring flexible working requests among staff and hopes to draw a clear parallel with the introduction of the programme and reduced absence levels. Stone also believes it will boost recruitment and retention levels.
Over the past five years, 6% (one in 70 employees) of Asda’s workforce has taken a career break and Stone estimates that about 10% of staff will take advantage of the My lifestyle option each year, where they can take up to 12 weeks off or reduce their hours for three months.
And while the majority of employers will no doubt be starting to panic about the right to request flexible working being extended to parents with children up to the age of 16 from next April, Asda will, yet again, already have it covered.
FLEXIBLE WORKING LAWS AND EMPLOYERS’ OBLIGATIONS
The Employment Right Act 1996 (ERA), as amended by several pieces of legislation (the most recent being the Flexible Working (Eligibility, Complaint and Remedies) (Amendment) Regulations 2007), provides a statutory right for employees to request flexible working.
The act sets out an employer’s obligation to deal with a request and the consequences of failing to deal with the request properly.
An employer will only be able to refuse a request where there is a clear business reason.
The regulations state that only a “qualifying employee” will be able to exercise the right to request flexible working arrangements.
Qualifying employees must have worked for their employer continuously for 26 weeks and not have applied to work flexibly during the previous 12 months.
IN 5 STEPS
- Draw up a business case for a better flexible working policy (including increased recruitment and retention levels and decreased absence).
- Talk to your employees and find out how they think flexible working could improve their work/life balance.
- Consult with line managers to help provide a clear and practical flexible working guide.
- Promote the new policy across all departments.
- Monitor and assess the take up of flexible working requests.