Will changes to the regulations change attitudes to flexible working?

It’s not often the main political parties agree on something, but when it comes to flexible working, the UK has consensus. Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are now committed to extending the right to request flexible working to larger groups of workers.

There is no doubt that for parents with young or disabled children, the introduction of the right to request in 2003 has helped in making flexible working more of a social norm.

The government has heralded the introduction of the right to request as an unequivocal success and with plans to extend this right to parents with older children, Labour feels it is onto a sure-fire vote winner.

Lack of awareness

Yet the latest government survey on work-life balance, published by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (DBERR) in March, found that only 56% of employees were aware of the right to request flexible hours.

And the official figures revealed that just a quarter of the six million employees currently eligible for the right to request actually use it. So does this suggest the legislation has not been as successful as it has been painted?

Not so, according to Hulya Hooker, a research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies, and chief author of DBERR’s work-life balance report. “Employer attitudes have definitely become more positive since the introduction of the right to request. Initially, it was seen as much more of a legal requirement they had to address, but now businesses want to retain [staff] knowledge,” she told Personnel Today.

Of the 44% of employees identified in the survey as unaware of the right, most worked in smaller businesses.

“Smaller companies aren’t shouting loud enough about the right to request so employees don’t know about it. They have excuses such as they cannot afford [flexible working], but it is just an excuse because research shows it can work,” said Hooker.

However, the latest British Chambers of Commerce data showed 90% of small businesses are offering some form of flexibility, suggesting that perhaps they do so informally and not under the label of ‘right to request’.

Success story

The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development agreed that the legislation had changed employer attitudes for the better – increasing awareness of the benefits flexible working can bring to an organisation.

Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser, said: “The right to request has been one of the most successful pieces of employment legislation. It allows the employer and employee to come to their own solution and minimises the chances of a tribunal needing to be drawn in to decide any differences.

“The legislation has prevented the issue becoming a matter of sharp disagreement between the CBI, TUC and the government, and has helped to change employer attitudes towards flexible working,” he added.

Most business groups have welcomed the current government review into extending the right to request to parents with older children. And an overwhelming majority of visitors voting on Personnel Today’s online news barometer said the right should be extended to all employees.

However, the Work Foundation think-tank warned there was still a long way to go to achieve effective flexibility in the workplace, and that legislation alone would not cut it.

While the law has helped encourage employers to offer more flexible working, many employers were ahead of the game before its introduction, according to a Work Foundation spokesman.

“Some large employers like Lloyds and BT were pushing opportunities to increase work-life balance for staff many years ahead of the legislation. It’s a ‘good idea to have’ law, but there is still an awful long way to go. Most people still work a rigid nine-to-five pattern,” he said.

Slow progress

For the Work Foundation, one of the main concerns employers had when offering flexible working was the inability to make quick decisions if several key employees were working remotely. “Some small- and medium-sized enterprises might decide they need a formal policy to tackle this, and this creates a little more work for them,” he added.

“But you can say this for any piece of legislation – it’s a great recruiting sergeant for HR professionals. Without legislation, there wouldn’t be so many [HR staff] because it’s an important part of their job making sure policies comply with the law.”

Right to request flexible working timeline

  • 2003 – For parents of children aged six and under or disabled children – 3.6 million employees eligible
  • 2006 – Extended to carers of adults – 2.65 million employees eligible
  • 2008 onwards – Possible extension to parents with children up to age nine, 11 or 16 – up to 4.5 million more employees eligible.

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