Are you working flexibly yet?

This month saw the one year anniversary of Government legislation giving all employees in the UK who have worked for their employers for 26 weeks or more the right to ask if they can work flexibly.

Long gone are the days when the right was confined to parents and carers only, as are the days when the employer had to follow a prescribed statutory procedure. It should be easier than ever before to work where, when and at times we want to. The right is now available to any employee for any reason and an employer’s obligation is to deal with any request reasonably and within 3 months.

So, do you fancy changing your working hours, say an extended lunch break with a later finish, to let you walk the dog in the middle of the day? Simply:

  • put your request in writing,
  • date it,
  • state that is it an application under the statutory scheme,
  • state the change you are asking for and when you wish it to take effect,
  • explain what effect you think the change would have and how that could be dealt with, and
  • state if you have previously made an application and, if so, when.

Your employer will then most likely meet with you to discuss your request before confirming its decision in writing. It is still open to an employer to refuse your request for one of eight prescribed reasons or, alternatively, agree to your change on a trial basis.

But are we achieving the work/life balance we desire? Our experience has been that uptake is slow. While employees may wish to enjoy a more flexible approach to working, employers are not convinced that the needs of their businesses will allow for it.

It is also our experience that, of all areas of potential conflict in the workplace, flexible working requests are one of the most contentious matters to deal with for one obvious reason: employer and employee almost always have competing interests. The employee wants change, the employers wants the status quo. The employee is often distracted by what he or she wants rather than the practical effects of what they are asking for, the employer is often concerned that any change will automatically have a detrimental impact on the business.

Whether you are considering making a flexible working request or having to consider one, the most important thing you can do to help achieve the outcome you want and avoid an unnecessary dispute is to give the most thought to the effect the change would have and how that could be deal with. This means:

  • As an employee, do no blindly refuse to accept that your request may have a detrimental impact on the business and write only about the positive impact the change will have for you. Instead, accept that it may – whether on performance, insufficiency of work or something else entirely – and get creative as to how these issues could be addressed. For example, if there is insufficiency of work for you to do in your department during the hours you wish to work could you ease the burden on an over stretched department elsewhere in the business by helping them?
  • As an employer, do not automatically assume that the requested change will not work. Think about your reasons for believing it won’t work, don’t overstate them and be objective. Really think about how it could be made to work and carefully explain why you’ve ruled out the different ways you may have identified. For example, you’re concerned about the impact on quality if you allow your most experienced member of the team to work from home for part of the week when the rest of the team are relatively inexperienced. Don’t be tempted to overstate the impact of the employee’s physical absence from the team. Or perhaps a period of training for everyone could benefit the business in the long term and allow you to reconsider the request.

Donna Reynolds is an experienced Employment Lawyer and HR Adviser assisting both SMEs and employees in Fife, Edinburgh and across Scotland.