To respond to a request for
flexible work, do employers have to know anything more than one
word - like "No"?
The answer is that they
certainly do. The new regulations in the UK place an obligation
on employers to "consider requests seriously". A simple "No"
isn't good enough - employers must have a reasoned argument
based on a valid business case as to why flexible work is not an
option for the employee concerned.
For that matter, a simple
"Yes" isn't appropriate either. Agreement to the request for
flexible work has to be followed by action, and making the
necessary changes to implement flexible work.
Organisations can no longer
see flexible work as an optional extra, or an issue to be
considered later. The new regulations require them to understand
the issues and the practicalities, and to understand how they
are to be implemented - or not - in their business.
Understanding the issues
Employers need to get to grips with:
how the regulations work - and hopefully our
Flexibility summary will be of use here; and
the wider context of flexible work - the kinds
of flexible work that may be relevant to, and requested by,
their employees. To find out about these, just browse through
the rest of this website!
The government's advice is based on the
principle that greater flexibility is good for businesses, as
well as individuals. Each employer is expected to be able to
interpret this principle in their own situation.
Understanding how the various flexibility
options work in practice is important for responding to
particular requests. The process of considering a request will
work much better if it can be dealt with in a friendly and
constructive way, and this is more easily done if the employer
is well informed about how the different kinds of flexibility
work in practice.
More than this, however, the employer needs to
understand the constraints that may have been holding them back
previously from taking advantage of flexible working. For
example, do some managers insist on unnecessary levels of
control over their staff, as in
wanting all staff to be in the office at certain
times, regardless of peaks and troughs in workload, or where
their first visit of the day should be?
insisting that staff are constantly on hand to
answer the manager's questions in person?
In either of these cases, staff may be deployed
according to the manager's convenience and limitations, rather
than according to the real needs of the business. More flexible
working patterns may be resisted by the manager, but the
business case for doing so would be poor.
There is a wide range of potential benefits from
introducing flexible working practices. Many companies have
successfully introduced them to achieve benefits such as:
improved recruitment and retention
reducing costs, particularly property, travel
and overtime costs
extending hours of operation
improving customer service
responding more effectively to changing market
So, any request for flexible work should be seen
not primarily as an obstacle to overcome, but an opportunity to
re-evaluate and improve the way work is organised.
It is also important to look closely at the
components of work, rather than making sweeping judgements about
a person's work as a whole. It is often the case that
certain tasks within a job are not so time-critical or dependent
on colleague/customer interaction. This can enable those tasks
to be done at a different time in the working week, or at a
Setting up flexible work
But why wait for the requests to come in? It is
much better to be prepared, having in place a basket of flexible
work options, and a framework that enables managers and staff to
see how different options may apply to different roles, tasks
and situations. This also takes away the necessity to reinvent
the wheel every time a request comes along.
A further advantage may be that if flexible work
options are available as a matter of course in the company,
staff should not need to make a request under the Employment
Act. This potentially gives the employer more control over
future variations to flexible working and exit arrangements
should it prove to be unsatisfactory.
Policies need to cover:
the range of options available
compliance with other legislation (e.g. Working
Time Directive, Health & Safety legislation)
access issues and provision of kit and
connection, in the case of home-based working
variation in arrangements
colleague cover in the case of illness, etc
who in the organisation should deal with
Actions also need to include the training of
managers to supervise flexible workers, and to implement
policies consistently and fairly.
Making flexible work work
for your company
In essence there are 3 levels of response to the
new regulations (or 4 if you count non-compliance!):
Do minimum - that is, respond to
individual requests as they come up, and reach ad hoc
Be prepared - that is, develop policies
and flexible work options that are available for requests from
Do the Full Monty - that is, take an
integrated and business-focused approach, extending flexible
work options to all staff whose roles will allow it. This
involves linking flexible work to other business aims of
reducing costs and increasing productivity.
Many organisations will no doubt need further
guidance about how to do this - and there's no better place to
start than our Complete Guide to
It is important to note that the costs of
getting it wrong can be considerable:
failing to maximise potential business benefits
wasting time in dealing with requests in a
piecemeal and uncoordinated way
potential staff and union discontent
expensive arbitration/employment tribunal
actions and decisions - it's worth remembering how costly these
are even when the grievance is rejected.
* The guidance
presented here is provided as a general and educational outline.
It is not intended as legal advice, and should not be taken or
used as such, or be used as the basis for business decisions,
for which readers should rely on their own sources of legal and