20th Jul 2023
3 Min Read

Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill marks government approval for throwing out the old approaches to workforce management

Lindsay Kohler
Lindsay Kohler
People & Change

Flexible working doesn’t just mean a combination of home/office working. Flexibility encompasses so much more, including job-sharing, flexitime and working compressed hours.

Although studies have found that 77 per cent of employees want flexible working hours, just 9.8 per cent of jobs offer it at the point of application.

80 per cent of respondents to a Flexjobs survey said that if their employer offered a flexible working arrangement, they’d be more loyal to them. And when the cost of replacing an employee is so high, retaining staff should be high on the agenda.

We know flexible working works. In 2022, Statista reported that there were 4.3 million people in jobs that allowed flexitime working hours – the most popular flexible working arrangement.

Now, with the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill, the government is putting their stamp of approval on flexible working.

What you need to know:

“From an employment law perspective and for internal HR teams, the right to apply for flexible working is nothing new,” says Shelley Briggs, scarlettabbott HR manager. “Employees have had this right since 2014, and it still applies.”

Here’s what employers will soon need to accommodate:

  • Employees can now make a flexible working request from day one – this should be part of the contract upfront
  • Employees can ask for flexible working twice within a 12-month period instead of once, and employers must now respond faster to these requests
  • If the request isn’t suitable, employers must discuss reasonable alternative options before rejecting. An employer still has the right to reject a flexible request based on one of the eight existing business-related grounds if there’s a compelling reason why the request won’t work for the business and all other possible options have been exhausted.

“Potentially, the biggest impact, and what businesses may find difficult, is the employees right to request flexi working from day one,” says Shelley. “Companies usually recruit into a role with a fixed or set number of hours assigned to the role. This could mean organisations will have to redesign the role, or potentially hire an additional employee to work the required hours/times.”

We asked our team what they think and the variety of answers highlights the excitement, concerns and other nuances of this change that HR and IC teams will need to consider.

Sophie Grace – project delivery manager

“It’s a positive change that will hopefully help tackle the stigma that ‘flexible working’ is only for parents and carers and help open wider discussions around mental health and work/life balance.

“In some organisations, however, this doesn’t mean ‘part-time work’ or ‘fewer hours’. Many people who drop down to four days a week or work outside of normal office hours still end up working additional days or at the weekend. That won’t help their work/life balance.”

Brandon Campbell – project delivery manager

“I’m glad there’s legislation in place to help facilitate the conversation between employee and employer around flexible working.

“We know from the pandemic that people aren’t only capable, but sometimes more productive working from home and I’d like to think most companies accept and promote flexible working. However, some are stuck in their ways. This new legislation means those who still push for a hard return to the office will now have the burden of proof placed on them to explain why the job can’t be done under flexible conditions.”

Lucy Carr – IC consultant

“I think it opens up a more challenging conversation for many companies and industries that haven’'t had to give the term ‘flexible working’ much thought before. There’s a huge misconception that flexible working just means working from home and flexible hours.

“We’re fortunate that our work is easy to do remotely and offers flexible hours. For jobs that are more ‘structured’ – i.e. hospitality, NHS, shift workers, etc. – I think people are leaning on a bigger pushback that it’s not ‘possible’ to be flexible because those jobs aren’t 9-5 office roles. They need to think more creatively about reorganising the way they do shifts. Working hours/patterns, job shares, non-working days, annual hours; there are still plenty of options.

“They also need to be willing to listen to their people and give requests the consideration they deserve.”

Flexible working = greater autonomy

When the bill was announced last December, Minister for Small Business Kevin Hollinrake said, “Giving staff more say over their working pattern makes for happier employees and more productive businesses. Put simply, it’s a no-brainer.”

Dr Alex Gapud, scarlettabbott’s cultural anthropologist, agrees. “This is a great win for employees and it’s another chapter in the wider question about when and where we work.

“For businesses, it’s also an opportunity to question their assumptions of not only when and where works gets done, but also how and by who. Businesses should be exploring what these policies and opportunities can mean for them – and how to understand and balance the needs of the business and their people.”

A win for inclusion

Previously, employees had to pitch the business case for their request, which put those with additional needs at a disadvantage when applying. That disadvantage could lead to employees leaving rather than fighting for accommodation.

Flexible working opportunities also allow caregivers (predominantly women) to be able to balance career and home with greater ease, which could have a knock-on effect for the gender pay gap.

Making flexible working the norm

This bill means flexible working will be the default – not the exception – and that’s a big win. And when enough people adhere to something, it becomes the new rule. This bill helps us move towards a world of work where flexibility, compassion and accommodation are the expected way for businesses to conduct themselves.

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