An Irish recruitment company (ICE Group) hit the news headlines recently with its announcement that it is introducing a 4-day week for all its employees.

Its rationale for introducing the initiative is that there is ample research evidencing that flexible working creates a more focused and energised workforce. Employees will work an extra hour per day on the days they are rostered and their annual leave will not be affected by the regime.

What is flexible working

There is no fixed definition of flexible working. It can mean different things to different people. It can be anything from part time hours, remote working, flexible working hours, compressed hours, annualised hours and combinations of the foregoing.

The advantages of flexible or agile working

The evidence points to numerous benefits for both employer and employees. The obvious ones are increased workplace morale and productivity. It drives efficiency as it encourages employees to maximise their working time (wherever that may be). It is also a key driver in retaining and attracting the best talent.

Disadvantages

A recent trend has emerged of "virtual presentism", whereby employees feel the need to be " always on " no matter where the location. The emergence of this trend negates the reasons for flexible/remote working in the first place and employers need to be alive to the potential detrimental impact of this trend. Employer often cite concerns about a lack of accountability and supervision meaning that employees may not be meeting their contracted hours when they are not being supervised. Remote working also poses data protection and cyber security issues and employers need to ensure they take the necessary steps to ensure company equipment/information is protected. Depending also on the nature of the role it can be difficult to service client demand if employees are working part time hours or remotely.

The legal position

There is no statutory right to part time or flexible work in Ireland. There is a Code of Practice on Access to Part Time Work 2006 (the Code). This Code is not legally binding. However, it is often referred to as a best practice guide and may be taken into account if the matter were to come before the courts or the Workplace Relations Commission. The European Union (Parental Leave) Regulations 2013 entitle parents returning from parental leave to request a change to their working hours or patterns for a set period on their return from leave. Employers must consider this request but do not have to grant it.

How to deal with a request for part time work

The Code requires employers to give consideration " as far as possible" for requests to transfer from full time to part time work and vice versa. It recognises that a key aspect of this consideration will be the operational/business context of the organisation and the need to enhance economic competitiveness. The ability of an organisation to grant part time working is dependent on a variety of factors such issues around increased costs, capacity issues for smaller organisations, and concerns around day to day operations such as service delivery. However, these considerations should be weighed against an employee's personal family needs and responsibilities. It also notes that an organisation can refuse a request if it is of the opinion that such an arrangement would have " an adverse effect on the operation of the business, lead to staffing difficulties or other relevant factors which might impact negatively on the business".

At a minimum an organisation should have a policy in place to deal with such requests. This policy should clearly set out the procedure for employees applying for flexible working. There should be an application process, consultation time period, decision and an appeal procedure. Like all workplace policies it should be communicated to staff, reviewed and updated regularly. It should also be applied consistently and in a non-discriminatory manner.

The future

It will be interesting to see whether other businesses will follow the innovative 4-day working week model. Whilst such a brave move may not be workable for all businesses, having a flexible and remote work policy is likely to become the norm sooner rather than later. Technology means that most jobs can now be done almost anywhere so the concept of a traditional office model is slowly but surely being eroded.