On 30 June 2014, new rules will come into force in the UK that will enable all employees with at least 26 weeks’ continuous service to request flexible working. Currently, only those with children under the age of 17 (or 18 if the child is disabled), or with adults in need of care are afforded this right.

Flexible working can include a wide range of working patterns such as job sharing, part-time working or working from home. The extension of this right to request is bound to be welcomed by employees, particularly those struggling to achieve a work/life balance. In 2013, a report commissioned by US recruitment firm, Ranstad, found that 50 percent of female employees felt that flexible working drove their career development and 33 percent felt that it was the best way to keep them engaged at work. But what does this change in approach mean for employers?

Dealing with a Flexible Working Request

The new statutory regime to some extent brings good news for employers. There is no longer any need to adhere to the rigid statutory process on handling flexible working requests within a specific timeframe. Instead, the new law places a duty on employers to deal with requests in a ‘reasonable’ manner.

The ACAS draft Code of Practice and Guidance sets out the procedures that employers should follow. ACAS recommends:

  • Considering the request and weighing up the benefits to the business against cost.
  • Meeting with the employee in question as soon as possible after receiving their written request to discuss the options.
  • Dealing with the request promptly - in most cases a request (including any appeal) should be considered and decided within a period of three months.

As before, employers do need to be objective and should only refuse a request for one of the business reasons set out in the legislation, which are:

  • The burden of additional costs would be unacceptable; 
  • An inability to reorganise work, or to recruit additional staff;
  • The change would have a detrimental impact on quality, the business’ ability to meet customer demand, or performance;
  • There is insufficient work for the employee to carry out during the periods they propose to work; and/or
  • Planned structural changes to the business, such that it would not be possible to accommodate flexible working.

Next steps for Employers

It is unlikely that employers will need to make significant changes to their current policies and procedures. These will however need to be reviewed to ensure that they reflect the new rights. Employers should also consider whether to:

  • Communicate with employees on how to go about making flexible working requests and what information to include in an application;
  • Communicate changes with management to prepare them for a swathe of additional flexible working requests; and
  • Consider how to handle flexible working requests to ensure consistency.

Of course, the availability of smart phone devices and remote IT access is likely to mean that many employees already work flexibly, albeit most will only do so informally. The real challenge for employers who do embrace the new approach and actively encourage flexibility will be to manage and protect the confidential information held on numerous external personal devices. Also key will be ensuring parity between employees to ensure that no employees become over-burdened by the need to service clients or customers during normal office hours. Also crucial will be ensuring that anyone who works from home or during abnormal working hours remains connected to the business.