With the Government recently announcing its plan to support a better work-life balance, including increased flexi-time or remote working (Government offers helping hand to balance work and life), permitting employees to change their hours is becoming increasingly popular with modern day employers. Although employers do not have to allow flexible working, they must be aware of the legal obligations upon them when processing these requests.

What is flexible working?

Arguably, the traditional notion of working 9 to 5 within a single location may result in difficulties for employees who maintain busy social and personal lifestyles. Flexible working allows employees to vary their hours from what has been previously agreed with their employer. For example, the employee may wish to come into work later or leave earlier than their contract states, compress the working day in other ways or even work from home. The primary aim of flexible working is to offer a working environment that assists employees in managing their outside commitments while continuing to be engaged in their roles. The statutory right to request flexible working applies after an employee has worked for their employer for 26 weeks or more, with requests only permitted once in every 12-month period. All employees who meet these requirements can submit a request, regardless of their reason for doing so.

The benefits of flexible working

While levels of productivity in the workplace within a company can fluctuate for numerous reasons, it is becoming increasingly apparent that being able to work flexibly can be a key factor in improving employee engagement. This is because the ability to work flexible hours can assist employees in outside commitments that may otherwise lead to them taking prolonged periods of time away from work or leaving their role entirely, such as caring for young children. Additionally, changing the traditional working day may allow for operational hours outside the 9 to 5 bracket and therefore improve the levels of service offered to clients. It can also help to mitigate holiday requests on the same dates, with employees able to use their flexible hours as an alternative to taking annual leave. Arguably, individuals having more control over their working hours can encourage higher levels of work, allowing employees to undertake their role when they feel most productive during the day.

Handling an application for flexible working

The first thing employers should consider is putting a policy in place on flexible working that can outline the procedure to employees, including the eligibility for making requests. This can help to clarify how the company will respond in these situations, how each application will be considered and the process for appealing against a decision. Employees who wish to make a request for flexible working will therefore be able to consult the policy before proceeding with the application, helping to avoid any later confusion or queries. When making a request, the employee should apply in writing, detailing the changes that they are requesting, their reasons for the request and the effect they believe the changes will have on the employer. The application should also state whether the employee has made a previous request for flexible working and, if so, the date on which this was made.

Considering a request for flexible working

When a request is received it is important to approach it with an open mind. Employers should start by considering whether the employee’s ideas of how the request could be accommodated are valid. For example, it may be difficult to permit significant changes in hours within a retail or shop environment as these businesses will be open at specific times. Care should also be taken to evaluate how the employee’s absence may impact on daily workloads getting completed; to give another example, the change may lead to other employees picking up more work and potentially result in performance issues. It is good practice to ensure consistency in how these requests are responded to. Although employers may not be able to agree to the change as requested, it may be possible to reach a compromise.

If an employer does not agree to the change immediately, it should arrange a meeting with the employee as soon as possible for a time, date and location convenient to both parties. During the meeting, the application should be discussed in more detail and the employer should use this opportunity to put forward any concerns it may have. Other implications surrounding the request should also be mentioned, such as any impact that a reduction in hours could have upon the employee’s salary. Following the meeting, the employer should write to the employee as soon as possible to give a decision on the application.

Accepting or rejecting a request for flexible working

If an employer chooses to allow the request, this should be confirmed in writing to the employee and represent a permanent change to their terms and conditions. The letter should also specify the date when the change will take place from. From this point forward, the employee will work these hours and this should not change without express permission from either party. Employers may also consider trying the new flexible working pattern on a trial basis, with the understanding that after a specific period of time the arrangement will be reviewed and the hours could be altered further or revert back to how they were originally.

If an employer chooses to reject the request, it should clearly specify the reason for this. Potential reasons for rejection are the burden of additional costs, the detrimental effect on the company’s ability to meet customer demand or insufficiency of work during the periods proposed. The employee should be given the opportunity to appeal against the decision. It is useful for the appeal to be considered by someone who was uninvolved in the original decision and the employee has the right to be accompanied by a colleague of their choice. From here, the employer should either confirm whether the appeal is upheld or refused in writing.

Conclusion

Flexible working may not be possible for all companies but can be highly beneficial for employers if managed properly. Despite this, employers should always carefully consider how permitting flexible working could impact upon their business before making any final decision. To ensure they are considering all requests fairly and reasonably, it is also highly advisable that employers refer to the ACAS Code of Practice.

Seek further advice

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Last reviewed 25 September 2019