October 25, 2020

The Future of Flexible Working Post Lockdown

Before the Coronavirus pandemic, around 5% of employees worked from home. When lockdown restrictions are lifted, it’s anticipated organisations will see an increase in flexible working requests.

How organisations deal with flexible working requests moving forward, will be a key issue in the months to come and beyond. So, what does the law say about flexible working? How can you address employee requirements? And how can you make flexible working, work for you, as well as the employee? Keep reading to find out.

What is Flexible Working?

Flexible working describes a type of working arrangement which gives a degree of flexibility on how long, where, when and at what times employees work. There are many forms of flexible working including homeworking, part time or reduced hours, job shares, flexitime, compressed or annualised hours, career breaks, staggered start and finish times or self-rostering.

Flexible working can be formal and be part of the contract of employment. They can also be informal, agreed between the employee and their manager and taking place on an ad-hoc or occasional basis.

The Current Context…

Many employees are keen to continue to undertake some degree of homeworking or flexible working. There are a number of reasons for this. For instance:

  • Many employees are now aware that it’s possible to work from home effectively.
  • They’ve been provided with and have learned how to use the technology that supports them to do so.
  • They may have found to have personally benefited from working from home (e.g. no more commuting and associated costs, and an improved work-life balance).

However, as an employer you may feel that whilst homeworking has served a purpose during the pandemic, the current forms of flexibility are very different from typical flexible working approaches. For example, many employees are working from kitchens and living rooms! Therefore, this is not reflective of normal flexible working and employers may not feel able to make decisions around long-term flexible working plans.

There is of course, an established legal framework in relation to flexible working requests. However, the pandemic has led to the introduction of flexible working arrangements in practice, without the need for policy or formal requests.

In November 2019 the government advised they intended to introduce legislation to support ‘flexible working by default’. Although there are still no timescales, it’s thought this legislation will go ahead. Whilst it’s currently thought likely that employers will still be able to turn down flexible working requests where there is an operational reason for doing so, this change in legislation will raise a general awareness of flexible working.

Flexible Working and the Law

Under current legislation:

  • Any employee with more than 26 weeks continuous service may make a formal request for flexible working.
  • They may make only one request in a 12-month period.
  • Upon receipt of a request, the employer must consider the employee’s request in a reasonable manner and within a reasonable timeframe.
  • The entire process (including an appeal where one is offered) should be concluded within three months.

When a request is agreed, it becomes a permanent change to the employee’s contract of employment.

A request for flexible working can only be refused on a number of specific grounds, including the burden of additional costs, a detrimental impact on quality, performance or ability to meet customer demand or an inability to reorganise work amongst other employees or recruit new staff.

Employers can choose to enhance their flexible working policies to go above and beyond the statutory minimum requirements.

When dealing with a request you should always check your organisation’s policy.

Flexible Working in the Short Term

When the restrictions are lifted, employees may continue to have short to medium term needs for flexible working as a result of the situation. For example, they may be living with a health condition that makes them especially vulnerable, they may be struggling to balance work and childcare, or they may have ongoing caring responsibilities.

In these circumstances it may not be helpful to follow normal policies and processes for requesting flexible working.

Addressing Short Term Employee Needs

Employers should consider allowing requests for short term flexible working or time-limited changes to terms and conditions of employment. These could include:

  • Allowing employees to request temporary changes to their working pattern; for example, for three or six months. At the end of any agreed period, the employee would automatically return to their substantive working pattern unless otherwise agreed.
  • A short and simple application process. For example, aim to make decisions quickly (in no more than a week or two) and provide employees with a simple form to complete.
  • Removing usual policy requirements, such as stipulating 26 weeks service in order to make a request or allowing more than one request in a 12-month period.
  • Outlining specific requests employees may make, for example a reduction of hours or flexitime.
  • An assumption that requests will be agreed wherever possible where the employee has a good reason for needing the change.
  • Any changes should be mutually agreed, confirmed in writing and have a clear end date. Where employees are seeking a permanent flexible working arrangement (or seek one when a temporary change has ended), the organisation’s normal policies and procedures should apply.
  • People managers should be briefed and trained on how to handle requests fairly and consistently.

Making Flexible Working, Work

This is a good opportunity to review the benefits which flexible working can offer. Flexible working has many potential benefits for organisations and employees. Current circumstances provide organisations with an opportunity to review their approach to flexible working as well as learn from employee experiences of recent months.

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About the author

Donna Chadbone

About the author

Donna Chadbone

Donna joined Moorepay in September 2008 and has worked with a range of clients from the engineering, aerospace, manufacturing, service, leisure, education, construction and care industries. During her career Donna has worked on an extensive range of generalist HR activities including recruitment and selection, performance management, disciplinaries, grievances, absence management and flexible working requests. As a field-based HR Consultant Donna provides specialist HR and Employment Law advice, consultancy, project delivery and training services to our clients. She primarily works with HR Managers, line managers and directors to support and guide them through HR best practice and employment law.

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