What actually is flexible working and how can you ask for it?
Flexible working is seeing a boom in popularity – but there’s a lot more to it than working from home. Here’s what you need to know about how the way we work is changing
by: Evie Breese and Laura Whateley
14 Feb 2023
More of the UK’s largest employers are talking about a permanent move to more flexible working and “hybrid” offices after the pandemic, but will it really be available to all?
A cost of living crisis on the back of a global pandemic has got employees and employers questioning whether work, in the traditional 9 to 5 Monday to Friday sense, is still working.
Businesses in sectors as diverse as hospitality to prison officers are struggling to recruit new talent in the face of giant labour shortages. Simultaneously, many others are finding it increasingly difficult to hold on to employees, some of whom have had to leave their job to take up childcare or caring responsibilities.
Flexible working has been positioned as a solution to many of these issues, allowing people to stay in their jobs while balancing other commitments, looking after their mental health and creating a more positive work-life balance.
There are many types of flexible working, but however you define it, what is clear is that its popularity – among employees, at least – is only increasing. More employees want flexible working than ever before, with searches almost tripling between December 2022 and January 2023, according to Flexa Careers, a global directory of verified flexible companies.
Here’s what you need to know about flexible working, and how it could drastically change the way we all work, for good.
What is flexible working?
Flexible working arrangements include working from home or working remotely, job sharing, part time, compressed or staggered hours and flexitime.
During the pandemic the term became associated with not always being in the office, working remotely or from home some of the time. This may be a significant part of it, but how working hours are arranged is an equally significant element.
For example, a software development agency in Australia has moved to a six-hour working day, specifying that all employees work between 9am and 1pm, but allowing them to choose when to work their additional two hours.
Here in the UK, a new flexible working system of annualised hours has “revolutionised” the workforce at University Hospitals Sussex NHS Foundation Trust. Whereas the former system was rigid and unworkable for many parents, the new system means staff are required to work a total number of hours across their whole contract, rather than per week or month, so they can choose when they work and commit to different hours in different weeks.
What are the current rules for flexible working?
Under existing legislation, employees who have been in their role for 26 weeks have a right to request flexible working, however that request can be rejected for reasons ranging from projected negative impact on the quality of work to employee performance.
What is the government doing on flexible working?
The government announced its plans to give every employee the right to request flexible working from their first day in employment back in September 2021. Following this, it launched a Making flexible working the default consultation, which “recognised that flexible working is different for every employee, employer, and sector – it does not come in one size only.”
In December 2022, the government reiterated its intention to make flexible working the default, by giving workers “a greater say over when, where, and how they work.”
It’s important to note that the right to request from day one would still give employers the option of declining the request if they “have sound business reasons to do so”.
Why do parents and carers want more flexible working?
The cost of childcare in Britain is soaring, so much so that some parents have found it cheaper to leave their job altogether than continue working while paying for nursery or a childminder.
Charity Pregnant Then Screwed found one in five parents have had to leave their jobs due to the cost of childcare, with 62 per cent saying they work fewer hours because of childcare costs. Women usually bear the brunt of childcare, meaning this further adds to the “motherhood penalty” (the pay gap between working mothers and women without dependent children) and the gender pay gap.
The working mothers campaign group is calling for the government to go a step further on its proposed flexible working legislation, saying a right to request simply gives employers the right to reject.
They want employers to advertise all jobs as flexible, unless they have a good reason not to, with jobs designed as flexible from the outset. This would allow all working parents to better juggle childcare and working commitments, keeping them in their jobs and earning a wage.
How can you request flexible working?
You need to apply for flexible working in writing, and state whether you’ve made an application before. You’re only allowed to apply once a year.
In the letter, lay out the change you want, when you’d like the change to start, how you think that change will affect your work or the business and, points out Acas, make sure you specify if your request is related to anything covered by the Equality Act 2010. For example, you are disabled and flexible working is part of an employer making a reasonable adjustment for that.
Like negotiating a pay rise, your request is likely to be better received if you lay out why flexible working would be beneficial for not only yourself, but also your colleagues and the businesses. The charity Working Families has a template letter anyone (not only those seeking flexible working for child care reasons) can use.
What to do if your request for flexible working is denied
There are eight grounds on which an employer can refuse a flexible working request, which include things like it being too costly, that they can’t re-organise work among existing staff, or that there’s not enough to do during the hours you propose to work.
“Although the regulations do allow an employee to apply for flexible working, there is no automatic right and the grounds for refusal are wide” says Richard Thomas, from Capital Law’s employment law team.
“Most businesses would be able to reasonably refuse a request under one of the grounds that suit their business.”
But, if your company has operated successfully during the pandemic, with everyone working at home, or with parents shifting their hours around to home-school children, it might be harder to argue that your post-pandemic request is detrimental.
If your boss turns down your request for flexible working, they should give a good explanation of why they can’t accommodate your request.
And if your request is related to tasks such as childcare, Thomas says “An employer who does decline such a request may also be at risk of a claim for sex discrimination.”
In a recent case, an Employment Tribunal found that refusing a female employee’s request for flexible working – which would have enabled her to collect her daughter from nursery – was an act of indirect sex discrimination.
If you would like to appeal the decision, there should be a process to do so with your employer. You may wish to highlight the problems with the reason your boss has given to reject the request, and why you feel this is unfair, discriminatory, or shortsighted.
In some instances, you may not be able to agree on a flexible working pattern, but you can refer your request to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) who can help with mediation or their arbitration service.
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