Until 2014 the right to request flexible working was reserved for employees with children under the age of 17. However, the introduction of new legislation in June 2014 extended this right to include all employees who meet the statutory requirements. Under these new regulations, qualifying employees can formally request flexible working for any reason, a big step in improving the work-life balance of many employees.
To qualify employees with 26 weeks continuous employment can make one formal written request for flexible working in any 12 month period, although there is no restriction on informal requests. Requests can include part-time working, compressed hours, home working, and job-sharing among many others. The legislation has also lifted the limitations on the reasons for employees making flexible working requests, reasons can now include everything from medical requirements and child care, to improving work-life balance and hobbies.
Once an employee has made a request, an employer has three months to consider the request and make their decision. Employers must ensure that requests are dealt with reasonably, and a request can only be refused for one of the following statutory reasons:
l The burden of additional costs;
l A detrimental effect on the ability to meet customer demand;
l Inability to reorganise work among existing staff;
l Inability to recruit additional staff;
l Detrimental impact on quality;
l Detrimental impact on performance;
l Insufficiency of work during the periods the employee proposes to work; or
l Planned structural changes.
If refused, the Acas guide provides that employees should be given the opportunity to appeal the decision.
If an employer accepts a flexible working request the changes to the employee’s contract will be permanent. As the employee cannot make another formal request for a further 12 months, it is advisable in some cases to agree to a trial period to test whether the changes work for both parties.
Flexible working has been shown to benefit businesses by improving equal opportunities, employee morale, and staff retention. Studies have confirmed that 89% of British employees feel that flexible working improved productivity, and 81% of women feel that flexible working makes prospective jobs more appealing, and whilst statistics show that currently 91% of women work flexibly or would like to, flexible working is also viewed positively by men. Studies show that 84% of men currently work flexibly or would like to, dispelling the myth that flexible working is just for mothers.
However, flexible working can be challenging for many employers and as such, it is important to have a suitable flexible working policy in place. Employers who do not reasonably consider requests, or refuse requests for any reason other than those provided in the legislation, could find themselves involved in Tribunal action. Equally, a policy to refuse all requests could result in claims for indirect discrimination. It is therefore imperative that employers ensure that each request is handled reasonably and within the three-month time limit.
Samantha Hyslop – BTMK