Flexible working and the right to request a hovercraft

Flexible working rules in the UK have changed, but have they made any real difference, were they even necessary and might they do more harm than good?

flexible working: woman bending over backwards on the phone

I would like to offer thanks to the News Quiz for the inspiration for this post. Listening to comedy now officially counts as work – yay!

The rules around flexible working in the UK changed on 30 June this year (2014). But have they really made managers’ and HR professionals’ lives any easier?

What the changes to flexible working were

First thing’s first. The changes to the law do not mean everyone has the right to flexible working. They mean everyone has the right to ask for flexible working.

Employees must have been in employment for 26 continuous weeks, and can only make a request once every twelve months. These are the only restrictions to making a request.

The CIPD goes on to explain, ‘prior to this date employees needed to meet prescriptive eligibility requirements, such as having caring responsibilities for either a child or an adult in need of care.’

The other changes relate to how an employer has to respond. There is no longer a statutory process you have to follow, but you do have to consider the request in a reasonable manner and provide sound business reasons for declining the request if that’s what you choose to do.

Were the changes necessary?

‘In theory, you have a right to request and the boss has an obligation to give you a reasonable answer. So fundamentally, the government are proposing to legalise normal conversation,’ says comedian Andy Hamilton; and he has a point.

In a communicative and well-functioning business, employees should feel comfortable making requests for flexible working (or other adjustments) to help them balance their personal and professional commitments, as long as they don’t adversely affect the business.

Managing time off is easier than ever with tools like Turbine and businesses already realise the benefits of offering flexible working, including:

  • More flexible customer service
  • The ability to attract and retain a wider range of talent
  • Building business hours around actual business need
  • Supporting the training and development of staff
  • Allowing employees to be more productive by letting them work when and where it’s best to get the job done

In fact, 96 percent of firms already offer some form of flexibility and even amongst small businesses – those most likely to struggle managing flexible working policies – about 90 percent offer flexible working. So why the need for a change in the law?

Setting expectations and limits

– Can I have a free hovercraft?

– …No, no you can’t. You don’t have the right to ask for that. In law, if you ask for a hovercraft you can be imprisoned.

Of course you can’t actually be imprisoned, as Jeremy Hardy suggests, but his joke belies a more serious issue underlying the introduction of this legislation.

While employees should feel entitled to ask for changes in their working environment or style, it should only be to the extent that it can benefit or at the very least not adversely affect the business.

There has been much discussion of the up and coming millenials in the workplace, and their apparent sense of ‘entitlement’. To what extent this is limited to a specific generation is debatable, but there is certainly a desire amongst some people to keep asking, simply to see how much they can get.

By introducing this legislation, the government is setting down an explicit expectation that it’s ok to evolve how we work in the 21st century to reflect our changing lifestyles and types of business. But at the same time they are placing an implicit limit around what you can and cannot reasonably ask for.

This can be seen, therefore, as a way of deterring people from making unreasonable requests that employers then have to reject, thereby causing negativity in the business.

The questionable right to say no

Of course, you can still say no to flexible working as well, as long as it is on reasonable business grounds. ACAS gives the following examples:

  • the burden of additional costs
  • an inability to reorganise work amongst existing staff
  • an inability to recruit additional staff
  • a detrimental impact on quality
  • a detrimental impact on performance
  • detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand
  • insufficient work for the periods the employee proposes to work
  • a planned structural changes to the business

And this might be where the legislation ends up being more of a burden than a benefit. By formalising the right to ask, in effect the government is formalising the whole process, which arguably places an additional administrative workload on businesses.

‘While the new procedure is designed to be light-touch, inevitably it will entail additional administration that the smallest of businesses will have to learn and may struggle to apply,’ says Federation of Small Businesses chairman, John Allan.

Added to this is the fear of retribution if a businesses does say no, and who it says no to.

‘One of the main questions we’re getting from our members is: will it become illegal for me to give priority to people who are parents or carers?’ says John Wastnage, head of employment at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC).

Where previously employers might have assessed requests on a case by case basis, some might now fear charges of discrimination and as a result issue a blanket ‘no’ to any requests (citing a suitable business reason in the process of course).

Good policy or bad?

As with any employment policy, there is a difficult balance to be struck between ensuring fairness and consistency and allowing for the merits of individual cases.

Certainly in this case, the government has gone with the (usually lauded) ‘less is more’ approach, setting out the minimum guidelines to ensure everyone has the same access to ask, while allowing employers freedom to handle and respond to requests as befits their business.

But, in this case, has this halfway house made the situation worse? Should some people have priority access to flexible working? And should it be a right or a privilege?

Personally, I think this was over-legislation of something that’s already naturally evolved pretty fairly in the workplace and was more of an attempt to look benevolent and favourable to voters. But that’s just me. What do you think?

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