David Greenhalgh: Untangling the flexible working web: What employers need to know

The flexible working phenomenon is set to add £148 billion to the UK economy by 2030, according to recent research by office rental firm Regus. Whilst there is no legal definition of flexible working, it generally includes initiatives such as working from home or a co-working space, hot-desking, flexi-time or even working on the daily commute.

With one in ten employees already on some form of flexible contract and 1.3 million more workers enjoying flexible working arrangements in 2017 compared to 2011, it is clear that these types of requests are on the rise. So, as employees become more aware of how and where they feel they can work most effectively, what do employers need to know about the working model of the future?

Receiving a request

After an employee has worked for a company for 26 weeks, they have a statutory right to make a written request for flexible working, should they wish to. This can be a request to change the total number of hours within their contract (i.e. to go part-time), but could also relate to a change in their working pattern or where they work from. For example, a recent YouGov poll found that over a third (37%) of employees would like to work from 8am-4pm instead of their current working hours. These kind of preferences are exactly what flexible working seeks to address.

Once a request has been received, an employer has three months in which to make a decision – including any appeals procedures should the request be declined initially. Generally, as part of this process, the employer should meet with their employee and discuss the proposed arrangements face-to-face.

Any requests of this nature must be dealt with in a reasonable manner, and the employer must have a solid business reason for rejection. The most common grounds for rejecting a flexible working request are the impact on the business as a result of the individual being out of the office at particular times; an inability to meet customer demand, if a sufficient amount of work cannot be carried out; or the inability to either recruit new staff or reorganise work within the existing team. With a rejection, however, comes the risk of a potential discrimination claim, so the reasoning behind it must be grounded in solid facts.

The future is flexible, but only with the right support

According to Quinyx, two thirds of UK workers (67%) say that they face barriers when it comes to achieving greater flexibility at work, with the reaction of their employer being the highest concern. The same survey also found that one in six workers feel their manager would react badly to a request for greater flexibility, with a further 15% worrying that it would negatively impact their career progression.

This so-called ‘flexism’ means that employees can feel discriminated against for asking for, or even being on flexible working contracts once approved. Instead of relying on these requests, employers should have policies in place which encourage a flexible working culture, such as working from home policies and initiatives or flexi-time.

Technology can make a difference, too. Whilst it can be challenging for employers to monitor the true hours worked when employees are out of the office, technological advances mean that work can increasingly be undertaken anywhere – whether that is at home, from a co-working space or from the local coffee shop.

The important thing to note when it comes to employees working outside the office is that it can make it easier to blur the boundaries between work and home life, which has the potential to lead to stress and burn-out. To counteract this and encourage employees to keep these two areas separate, employers should have clear policies on working time which state whether replying to emails or answering calls outside of contracted hours is expected.

Flexible working is no longer considered by some employees to be a ‘perk’ of the job, but rather something that is expected to be written into contracts or at the very least, an option they can take if they wish to do so. By putting policies in place to not only encourage flexible working, but also stipulate what is expected from those that choose to work in this way, employees will be aware of the company’s position from the start and will feel supported in their decision to begin working more flexibly.

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About David Greenhalgh

David is a partner in the Employment practice at London-based law firm Joelson, where he has been since 2015. He advises employers across a wide range of industry sectors, and regularly acts for senior level executives on their disputes, moves, claims, contracts and exit negotiations. Prior to specialising in Employment law, David practised in heavyweight litigation, and secured victory for the families of the Omagh bombing victims in their landmark civil action against the Real IRA. David has continued to offer legal representation in landmark cases in Employment law, and works with clients across a variety of sectors including financial services, media, professional services and hospitality. He has been individually recognised in both Chambers and the prestigious Legal 500 independent guides and has been listed in the Telegraph’s Super Lawyers Guide.

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