Removing the stigma
It's unclear at this stage, however, how this proposal will be introduced as both parties manifestos contain different approaches; with the Conservatives in favour a staged approach. What is clear is that the coalition is committed to a consultation process with all stakeholders, including businesses and individuals, to ensure not only a practical implementation, but a workable one too.
Extending flexible working to all will remove some of its stigma and be of benefit to individuals as our daily lives become increasingly busy. With more and more of us juggling family and work commitments, and family units becoming ever more fragmented, flexible working seems the obvious choice to relieve some of those pressures.
At the same time, consideration must be given to how businesses will deal with the implementation of an extension of flexible working rights, which is why participation in the consultation at the early stages is key to ensuring that the views of business are represented.
Current flexible working rules
The current flexible working regime is limited to employed 'parents' with caring responsibilities of children aged 16 and under, or parents with disabled children up to the age of 18, together with carers of certain adults.
It is proposed that the right to request flexible working will be extended to all, with some of the stated aims being to enable everyone to have a better work/life balance, to help remove the stigma attached to current requests to work flexibly and to help prevent inequalities in pay. While this is a positive extension of the existing rights, there is a question whether it will be able to achieve all the stated objectives. And there are particular doubts on equal pay.
There is a prescriptive regime in place regarding statutory requests for flexible working at the moment and it is expected that a similar formal approach will be adopted for the new rules. The Challenge will be to ensure that any new framework introduced recognises the potentially conflicting interests between employer and employee, and helps to balance them.
Undoubtedly there are positives for employers from flexible working in terms of improved morale, increased retention and a bigger pool from which to recruit talent. That must be balanced with the need to ensure flexibility to meet business needs and that those business needs may vary depending on the nature of the business, as well as the role performed by the individual within that business.
Addressing key areas through consultation
It is anticipated that the following key areas will be addressed during the consultation process:
1. Will there be any need to demonstrate any 'caring responsibilities' to support the request? There is conflicting terminology used in Queens Speech between phrases such as 'wider caring structure' and 'work and home life'. Could the latter be suggesting that anyone can submit a request, even just to enable you to go to the gym more?
2. Will there continue to be a qualifying period?
3. Will there be prescribed rules as to what employees are allowed to request with regards to 'flexible working'.
The potential options are vast:
- Condensed working week?
- Part time?
- Home based?
- Alternative weekly patterns?
- Will the employer be open to criticism if it needs to negotiate as to what constitutes the appropriate flexible working pattern
4. Will there continue to be prescribed 'grounds' on which requests can be refused and will there be better guidance as to the evidence that is needed to support such a refusal?
Will potential sanctions for refusal be extended? And will the twelve-month period between requests be maintained? Compliance with such requests can be time consuming and many employers will want to resist the ability to request alterations to work patterns more regularly.
5. We anticipate that the practical issues for employers that will need to be considered:
- How will employers balance the positives of flexible working (such as morale and retention) with the need to meet business needs?
- How should employers ensure a consistent and fair approach is adopted?
- Do reporting/ monitoring processes need to be adapted to meet increased flexibility?
- Do time recording and payroll processes need to be adapted?
- Will employers wish to extend the right beyond a formal statutory request?
- How should contracts be amended?
All stakeholders of the proposed new rules for flexible working, businesses and employees alike are urged to take an interest and participating role in the consultation process as it unfolds.