For a number of smaller employers just the thought of Flexible Working can immediately induce panic. In a small operations with a tight-knit team who works like clockwork, a flexible working request for a key cog can feel like a spanner has been thrown into the mechanism.
But it doesn't have to feel like that.
As a catch-all term 'flexible working' covers a multitude of different ways of working and there is a misconception that they only benefit the employee, however employers can certainly benefit in a number of different ways by finding ways that the employment can work for both parties.
With legislation in place from the 30th June 2014 which extends the right to request flexible working to everyone with the required service, it is more important than ever that businesses understand what can be expected of them. And once they understand this, how they should deal with any requests.
So what is flexible working?
The term includes a number of ways of working and for the most part covers changes in either the number hours someone works, the times they work and/or where the individual works from.
Types of flexible working include:
- part-time working
- different start and/or finish times
- a change of shift pattern
- term-time working
- compressed hours, or
- home working
The different ways in which flexible working can be applied are numerous and the above list is certainly not exhaustive. The fundamental distinction is that, having worked to certain terms previously, an employee has the right to request that one or more of these terms is changed and employers are duty-bound to consider these within the context of their organisation.
A formal flexible working request isn't appropriate for a short-term arrangement, e.g. to help with childcare arrangements in a half-term week, as the changes agreed will become permanent to an individual's terms and conditions of employment. Employees' statutory right only allows them to only submit one application in any twelve month period. While some employers may allow more, this restriction along with the permanent change mean that both the employee and the employee need to thoroughly consider any request.
What employer's need to remember
Just because an employee submits a flexible working request, you do not have to accept it. What you are required to do by law is to consider the request properly within a reasonable timeframe and following a set process. It is crucial that employers remain objective and base their judgement on what is or isn't operationally possible. This will demonstrate to the applying employee that there has been a fair and consistent approach to their application and there is clear justification as to why it can't be accommodated, if that is the outcome.
It is not always easy to understand or quantify just what impact a flexible working pattern could have on a business' operations. If, as an employer, you feel the proposal pattern may work but don't know for definite we would suggest considering putting the pattern into practice on a trial basis, which can then be reviewed by both parties before the end of the period to judge whether it is viable permanently. Using a trial period, and making sure that you keep communicating throughout, means that you can again demonstrate objectivity and both sides get a chance to try it out meaning that the employee can also check that it works for them, their workload and the other demands on their time.
As with all steps in the process you should make sure that there are written documents covering what has been agreed, and notes of conversations throughout the process, so when the final decision is made all the information is to hand.
Communication is key
The statutory right for employees only covers one request for flexible working every 12 months, although some employers may choose to allow more. So employees don't 'waste' their opportunity, it is best to keep open and clear lines of communication about a request that may be received. An informal discussion with a line manager to raise the issue and use them as a sounding board is a great place to start and managers should be aware that this may happen and be open to having such discussions. The manager certainly shouldn't discourage an employee from making the request, especially when there are many factors to consider, but getting a different perspective on their potential request may help an employee understand operational requirements of the company and help them put forward a much more acceptable request with a greater chance of success.
Restrictions or other allowances
It may be that in the main the flexible working request can be approved, with certain conditions being met as part of the arrangement. For instance, it may be that every quarter you meet with a certain customer, the specific employee needs to attend but it can't be guaranteed that the meeting will fall in line with their new working routine. You can specify that there will be occasions where flexibility will be needed, and that these will be arranged with sufficient notice and with allowances to make time back etc at another point.
While some immediate reactions are that flexible working is only in the interests of the employee, there are also benefits for the employer. More flexible working patterns can mean a more flexible workforce allowing businesses to respond to customer needs in different ways. It also means that knowledge and skills developed by existing staff do not have to be lost if they leave and be built up from scratch by someone new, which could mean additional costs and time spent elsewhere.