As employers will already be aware, employees with children can make a request for flexible working if they fulfil certain criteria. Examples of this are job sharing (where typically two employees share the work normally carried out by one employee) part-time working, staggered hours or flexi-time.

In May 2010, the Coalition Government committed itself to extending flexible working to all employees and consulting with businesses on how best to do this. One of the key reasons is that as the population ages, people need flexible working patterns in order to care for elderly parents of relatives.

Currently parents of children under 17 and disabled children under 18 and carers of certain adults are eligible.

From April 2011 the right will be extended to those parents with children under the age of 18 with plans to extend this further to all employees in due course.
Individuals must also be continuously employed by the same company for more than 26 weeks before they can ask to work flexibly.

At the moment 10.5 million adults are eligible to request flexible working. From April, that will benefit a further 288,000.

The aim of this is to improve employment for both the employers and employees by “maximising flexibility for both parties while protecting fairness and providing the competitive environment required for enterprise to thrive”. This means that employers can look forward to some relaxation of current regulations and red tape.

For employers concerned about the thought of an influx of employees demanding flexible working, it is worth remembering that it is only the right to request flexible working that will be extended, not the right to be granted. It is possible for an employer to refuse a flexible working request if it is due to one of the eight ‘business reasons’ provided that the employer is not discriminating against employees either directly or indirectly, on any unlawful ground, in doing so.

Some have argued that employers already go beyond their statutory duties and offer flexible hours to all staff and this legislation will add to the burdens of British companies. Alistair Tebbit of the Institute of Directors asked why there was a need to formalise in law a process that takes place already, when there is no evidence that extending the right would actually lead to more flexible working opportunities.

To address these changes to flexible working, it may be helpful for employers to update their company handbooks in relation to flexible working and have in process an efficient administrative system for dealing with requests in a timely manner.