Flexible working should be at the top of an employer’s HR agenda

That was the recommendation of a recent survey conducted by Regus which highlighted the importance of flexible working to reducing staff turnover and increasing employee loyalty. More than half of people said they would stay with their employer longer if they had greater flexibility and for the youngest employees we simply won’t retain them unless it is on the table. For the one third of employers who offer no flexibility at all, you should be worried as you may not be able to attract or retain talent because of this.

From a legal perspective, the right to make a request to work flexibly is being extended at some point this year [1]to all employees with 6 months service, not just those with caring responsibilities and children. A lot of employers already accept requests from a wider group of staff, so the attention then moves onto whether or not to accept the request.

Over the years I have come across a lot of employers who simply are not prepared to even try any flexibility. In one case the employer would not allow someone to work half an hour less in the evening by working through half her normal lunch break. Those sorts of employers are risking a finding of sex discrimination as any policy of ‘not allowing that sort of thing around here’ will affect female workers disproportionately to the male workers as Tribunals are willing to accept that women still take the lion’s share of child or elderly care. It will only take one person willing to challenge it and the employer will be in trouble.

Whilst the Flexible Working Regulations give an employer eight business reasons for saying ‘No’ to a request, for example because what is being requested would have an impact on customer care, clearly employers need, on the basis of the Regus survey to think about what the wider implications of saying ‘No’ might be and whether there are some small steps towards greater flexibility that can be introduced. In these days of difficulty rewarding employees with money, it might go some way towards making you an employer of choice.

When the changes in the Work and Families Bill come into force the process to be followed when considering a request for flexible working will be more fluid. No longer will the employer have to follow a timetable, instead, they will have to meet with the employee to discuss their request ‘within a reasonable time’ and in ‘a reasonable manner’ and to complete the process including any appeal within 3 months. Again, this is an area in which employers can score points: if a returner to work from maternity leave is worrying about whether or not she can change her hours, she will want to know the answer quickly, not some 3 months down the line when childcare might no longer be available.

Employers with detailed policies will have to decide whether to stick with them because they provide a useful structure for managers or whether to water them down in line with the new Code of Practice ACAS are publishing to sit alongside the Bill. Personally, I am of the view that giving everyone a framework to work through is useful, especially as managers don’t tend to read the Code of Practice.

[1] The latest publication from BIS states the legislation will come into force on “an appropriate date as soon as possible this year”. Originally it had been timetabled for April.