An employers' guide to flexible working

Flexible working has come to the fore in recent years, not least because of the COVID-19 pandemic.


COVID’s impact

Working remotely is just one type of flexible working. Before the pandemic, only around 11% of the workforce worked mainly from home (2018). But at the height of COVID restrictions in the UK, travelling to work was only allowed where it was “absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home” - leading to 47% of the UK workforce working from home.

Organisations that may have shied away from the concept of remote working in the past were suddenly thrown in at the deep end, with some finding that it didn’t have the negative business impact they anticipated. A University of Southampton study of work during Covid lockdowns suggested that 90% of people thought their productivity had stayed the same or improved by working from home, while a CIPHR employer survey found that 53% of organisations saved money by having more employees working remotely.

This period of enforced home working encouraged some employers to reduce overheads, close offices or swap offices to meeting spaces and move to a remote or hybrid working model going forward.

However, some still believe the office environment is an integral part of business operation. VSA Capital’s Chief Executive, for example, believes employees “abuse” flexible working and are less productive working from home: "Obviously it varies from industry to industry, but in financial services it's more important to be in the office because it’s a very live industry".

Flexible working, even beyond the pandemic, is a complex issue.

GoodShape’s guide to flexible working

We created this guide to make the process of dealing with flexible working requests simple and straightforward.

When handled correctly, flexible working can bring huge business benefits, improving staff wellbeing, cutting costs and boosting productivity.

This is emphasised in a consultation put forward to the Government to make flexible working the default: by removing the invisible restrictions to jobs (such as the need to live in expensive accommodation close to city centres) flexible working fosters a more diverse workforce – and the evidence shows that this leads to improved financial returns. Offering a range of flexible working options is more likely to attract top talent. Furthermore, employees who have more flexibility are more motivated at work and more likely to stay with their employer.

Our employer’s guide to flexible working provides information about your obligations, the different types of flexible working and how to handle employee requests:

What is flexible working?

Flexible working is a way of working that suits an employee’s needs. It usually involves a change to the typical working pattern in an organisation.

Different types of flexible working

The most common types of flexible working are:

  • Remote working – working from home or another location for part or all of the time
  • Term time / school hours working – part time working during school term times
  • Job sharing - sharing a single role between two people
  • Compressed hours – working the same number of hours over fewer days
  • Annualised hours – working a fixed number of annual hours flexibly over 12 months
  • Flexitime – working core hours with flexible start and finish times
  • Staggered hours – later or earlier start times without core working hours

What rights do employees have?

At the moment, all employees with 26 weeks' service have a legal right to request a change to their hours, timing or location of work. This is known as a ‘statutory request’, and it falls under the Employment Rights Act 1996.

Workers making a request should email or write a letter to their employer. Employers may provide a standard application form which can be found on the Gov.uk website here.

Employee applications must include an explanation of how they think flexible working will affect the business and how this could be dealt with, for example, if they’re not at work on certain days. Employees can only make one application for flexible working each year.

What are an employer’s obligations?

Employers must follow strict legal procedures in dealing with flexible working requests. Government guidelines state that all requests must be considered in a ‘reasonable manner’. The entire process (including an appeal where one is offered) should be concluded within three months.

The ACAS Code of Practice sets out guidance for employers when responding to a flexible working request.
When a request is agreed, it becomes a permanent change to the employee’s contract of employment.

What should employers do when they receive a request?

  • Discuss with your employee
    Arrange to talk with your employee as soon as possible. Allow them to bring a colleague along and encourage an open and honest discussion. This will give you a better idea of what the request might mean for your business.

  • Consider the request fairly
    Assess the advantages and disadvantages of the application. What are the benefits of the requested changes both for the employee and your business? What are the drawbacks?

Benefits of flexible working

Flexible working can bring a surprising number of benefits to organisations.

When considering a request, it can be helpful to think about:

  • Productivity: Many studies show that remote workers are more productive than those who are office based. Fewer distractions mean improved focus. Flexible arrangements such as annualised hours can also help businesses to meet peaks and troughs.

  • Cost: Flexible working can reduce overheads. Lambeth Council reports saving £4.5million on rents each year since allowing employees to work from home.

  • Environment: Remote or part time working means lower carbon emissions for employees and businesses.

  • Expertise: Job sharing effectively provides two experts for the price of one.

  • Staff morale & wellbeing: a 2017 HSBC study revealed that flexible working was more likely to motivate employees than pay rises or bonuses.

Accepting a request

If you decide to accept the request, you should write to the employee asap with:

  • a summary of the agreed changes
  • a start date for flexible working
  • a new contract and terms and conditions.

This should be done within 28 days.

Turning down a request

Requests can only be turned down if employers can prove significant negative business impact. This might include factors such as:

  • the burden of extra costs
  • an inability to reorganise work or recruit additional staff
  • a detrimental impact on quality or performance

ACAS also points out that employers must not discriminate unlawfully against the employee in reaching their decision. Take particular care that you can justify turning down a request when the employee making it has a protected characteristic under the 2010 Equality Act. If you decide to turn down a request you must inform the employee in writing, providing an explanation.

Appeals

Employees don’t have a statutory right to an appeal. But it’s considered good practice for employers to offer an appeals process. This helps to show that you have handled the request in a ‘reasonable manner’. It’s also good practice to have a Flexible Working Policy, which sets out exactly how you will handle employee requests.

Do employers have to consider informal requests for flexible working?

Informal applications are not covered by flexible working legislation. However, it is generally considered best practice to give serious consideration to all requests. It’s a good idea to ask employees to follow up with a formal letter, email or application.

Looking ahead

The future of work is changing, and as we strive to find the perfect life balance, requests for flexible working will almost certainly increase. Even prior to the pandemic, a major report by the CIPD in 2018 showed a strong, unmet demand for more flexible jobs, with 87% of people wanting to work flexibly, but only 11% of jobs advertised as flexible.

At the rate circumstances are changing, employers that don’t offer flexible working may soon fall well behind their competitors.

Find out more about flexible working rights and benefits on the CIPD website here.

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