Flexible working: right to request, not right to have

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While many employees will welcome the right to request flexible working, the Work Foundation’s Dr Zofia Bajorek has concerns about its implementation and management. Will it be an organisational help or hindrance?

Probably more than once you have thought that having a more flexible work pattern would be better for your work-life balance, your organisational productivity and maybe even your health and wellbeing.

Until now, the legal right to request flexible working arrangements from employers has been limited to employees with children aged 16 or under or a disabled child under 18, or those with a caring responsibility. However, all this may change from 30 June when the right to request flexible working is extended to all employees. I stress the ‘may’ in that sentence, as employees will have the right to request, if they meet the criteria, but employers also have the right to refuse on business grounds.

Under the new legislation, the applicant requesting flexible work must have an employment contract (agency workers and members of the armed forces are not eligible); have worked for their employer for 26 weeks continuously on the date the application is made; and must not have made a flexible working request in the previous 12 months. The request can cover hours of work, times of work and place of work and may include requests for different patterns of work, and, if approved, the change becomes a permanent change to the individual’s contract of employment and employees have no automatic right to return to their previous work pattern.

While I can imagine many employees are happy that these changes are being introduced, I question the impact that it will actually have and have concerns about its implementation and management.

Flexible Working: goodbye nine to five, a recent report by the Institute of Leadership Management, indicated that 94% of organisations already offer some form of flexible work practice. Such work practices can include: part-time work, flexitime, working from home on a regular basis, mobile working/teleworking, and even lesser known methods of flexible employment such as term-time work, job-sharing, compressed hours and career breaks.

If these are already on offer in a very large percentage of organisations, will the extension of the right to request flexible working practices lead people to assume they are instantly eligible for them, or will flexible work practices continue on their current informal basis?

Once an application has been made, employers have a month to meet with the applicant for discussion. After this meeting, the employer has 14 days to notify the employee of the outcome: either accepting the request, confirming a compromise to it or rejecting it. Indeed, employers have the right to refuse requests for flexible working if there are ‘clear business reasons’ for this. These business reasons include: detrimental effects on meeting customer demands, the quality of work and performance; inability to reorganise work among existing staff or recruit additional staff; planned structural changes; and the burden of additional costs. Thus, a right to request does not always lead to the right to have flexible work.

In the 21st century workplace there is a complex triangular relationship between the needs of the employee, the organisation and the employer, and somehow flexible work has to be managed to ensure these needs are balanced. And that is not easy. Employers know that enhancing the wellbeing of employees by granting their request will strengthen their employment relationship, enhance engagement and is likely to improve productivity and commitment. However, on the other hand, those on ‘normal contracts’ may feel a sense of distributive injustice if their workload changes or if tasks are allocated differently to ‘fit-in’ with their co-workers’ requests for flexible work.

If this is not adequately managed, employers may be hit by negative behaviours from other staff. Also, if there are competing requests from team members, it may not be possible to approve all the requests, and how will this be dealt with fairly – by pulling names out of a hat? Although I offer that solution in jest, apparently this has been offered as a suggestion for dealing with multiple requests, a situation that is not beneficial for the employee or the organisation.

We will have to wait for the extension of flexible working rights to see if this proves to be an organisational help or hindrance. However, given that many organisations already informally offer flexible work practices, I imagine the new right may just add to a manager’s workload and administration, could be extremely difficult to implement fairly and if managed poorly could introduce a negative dynamic into workplaces, especially if requests are refused.

I hope this is not the case, as flexible work, if accommodated into organisational practice, could reduce sickness absence, improve wellbeing and organisational outcomes. Crucially, the impact of this legislation rests on how it is managed.

Information on the right to request flexible working.

Dr Zofia Bajorek is a researcher at the Centre for Workforce Effectiveness, The Work Foundation



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