The ultimate guide to flexible working

What is flexible working? What’s good about it? What’s bad about it? How do you implement flexible working practices?

Flexible working isn’t about being bendy enough to do ‘the cobra pose’. It’s much more beneficial than that – and way less painful. Find out everything you need to know about flexible working in this ULTIMATE guide. Plus, we’ve summarised the key bits in this handy pdf guide!

flexible working guide
Chapter 1

What is flexible working?

    In this chapter you will learn...
  • Types of flexible working
  • What is a flexible working request?
  • Who can apply for flexible working?

What is flexible working?

Put simply, flexible working is about giving employees more choice over how long, where, when, and at what times they work.

For instance, working from home (or remotely, like at the local Starbucks) is one kind of flexible working. Instead of being required to attend a workplace, employees are given the freedom to decide where they work.

Another example is working less hours than the traditional 37.5. This can be popular among employees who have time-consuming commitments outside of work.

Both of these examples of flexible working bring all kinds of juicy benefits and that’s something we’ll come on to shortly, we promise.

Now, it’s important to know this stuff isn’t just some ‘nice to have’ initiative. This is written in black and white in UK law, and eligible employees have a statutory legal right to apply for flexible working.

Woah. Sorry to get all serious on you there! Let’s lighten things up and look at the different flexible working options employers can offer.

Types of flexible working

  • Part-time hours: this is pretty self-explanatory as well as being a common type of flexible working. It’s simply where someone works less than full-time hours, either by working less hours in a day, or less days in a week. 
  • Working from home or remotely: something many employers had to get to grips with quickly amidst the pandemic! This is working somewhere other than the workplace. 
  • Annualised hours: employees commit to a set number of hours over the course of a year but have flexibility over when they work. They might have ‘core’ hours in a week they must work, but the rest can be worked as and when they choose to, or when there’s increased workload. 
  • Compressed hours: employers allow their staff to work the same contracted hours over fewer days. For instance, an employee works 37.5 hours over four days (not five). 
  • Flexitime: this gives employees the choice over what times they start and finish work. As an example, an employer may want their staff in work between 10am and 4pm each day but allow them flexibility at the start and the end of the day, instead of enforcing a rigid 9 to 5. 
  • Job sharing: this is where two people split one full-time job between them. E.g. one person might do three days a week, and the other does two days a week. 

 

Flexible working includes working remotely, working part-time, annualised or compressed hours, flexitime and job sharing.

Of course, a blended flexible working approach that’s increasingly popular as we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, is ‘hybrid working’. Skip to the next chapter to learn more about hybrid working.

What is a flexible working request?

A flexible working request is a request for flexible working (shocking, we know). It’s also called a ‘statutory application’.  

Employees who wish to make a request must do so in writing – a letter or an email are both fine and dandy. The request (or application) should be sent to the employee’s line manager and should contain the following key ingredients:  

  • The current date. 
  • A statement that it’s a statutory request. 
  • The change to working conditions and/or flexible working pattern they are seeking. 
  • When and why they would like the change(s) to take effect. 
  • The duration (if applicable). 
  • Whether they wish it to apply permanently or for an initial trial period. 
  • What effect they consider the request will have on the organisation and how this could be accommodated. 
  • Whether they are making the request under the Equality Act 2010 e.g. a “reasonable adjustment” for a disability. 

Who can apply for flexible working?

Current flexible working legislation clearly explains the following: 

  • 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. 

There’s something rather interesting on the horizon here too! Whilst eligibility is not currently from day one of employment, that could all change following a recent Parliamentary Bill put forward by MP, Tulip Siddiq. Find out more details on when employees are eligible to make a flexible working request.

Finally, there’s one more important note on the legislation part of all this: when a request is agreed, it becomes a permanent change to the employee’s contract of employment. You don’t just shake hands and walk off into the sunset; HR need to be involved to formalise the agreement. 

Chapter 2

What is hybrid working?

    In this chapter you will learn...
  • The rising popularity of hybrid working
  • Challenges of hybrid working

What is hybrid working and why is it so popular?

Hybrid working is a blended approach to where employees work. Instead of working fulltime in the workplace, they do a mix of part-time from home and part-time in the workplace. 

For example, Meredith works two days in the Manchester city centre office each week, and three days from the comfort of her home in Stockport.  

Since the lockdown when employees were told to work from home if they could, many have seen the various benefits this can bring. From enjoying longer in bed in the mornings, to skipping tedious traffic in a dull commute, to spending more time with Dylan the dog. It all adds up to increased work-life balance, particularly for those who have busy personal lives, dropping kids off at school or caring for aging relatives.  

The benefits that hybrid working can offer to a business are very much the same as that of flexible working. Skip to the next chapter on the pros and cons of flexible working to learn more.

To work hybrid or not to work hybrid: that is the question. And it’s one that many high-profile employers are answering. Big players like Amazon, Google, the BBC, and Microsoft are all trying out this blended approach.  

Of course, it’s not for everyone – let’s take a look at some of the things that might put employers off a hybrid working model.   

Challenges of hybrid working

Hybrid working brings several challenges for employers to grapple with. Now, these things shouldn’t put people off trying out this more modern approach to the working world, but they do need consideration from the outset.  

An obvious one is consultation. Do you need to consult with your employees if you’re shifting to this model? Should you survey staff first and get their views? What does consultation really mean?  

And what affect could hybrid working have on key policies like diversity, equality, bullying and harassment? How do you ensure inclusive working with fair treatment for all staff? 

Find out the other areas to consider in our blog post hybrid working: 10 issues employers must consider. 

Hybrid working in numbers

5.6M

people mainly worked from home in 2020 in the UK

80%

of employees who have no access to flexible working would like it

26%

of people think employers will continue to offer homeworking after the COVID crisis is over

Chapter 3

What are the pros and cons of flexible working?

    In this chapter you will learn...
  • How flexible working affects productivity, retention, recruitment and wellbeing
  • Implications for payroll and recruitment

Pros of flexible working

Productivity

It should come as no surprise that empowering employees with choices over where they work, at what times and for how long, will boost their motivation. And this has some lovely results for company productivity. 

According to CIPD (and based upon findings from HSBC), 81% of those who have access to remote working believe it increases their productivity. That’s not hard to believe, is it? Feeling like you must work a rigid 9 to 5, versus working when you’re at your best; flexibility wins every time.  

What’s more, if employers can offer homeworking arrangements, the time employees would have spent commuting might be spent doing a bit of extra work instead. 

Try our helpful blog to find out how to ensure productivity among homeworking employees.

Retention

51% of employees say job flexibility is more important to them than salary when making job choices. Want to keep hold of your staff? It’s not all about paying top dollar and providing swanky benefits packages. It’s about flexible working options – and that might be the case for more than half of your workforce!  

Why’s that you ask? Well, employee engagement is driven (in part) by the quality of relationships that employees experience at work. And trust is the foundation of any relationship. By giving employees choices over certain aspects of their working day, you’re giving them your trust. And trust drives loyalty – which means less people saying: ‘I’m sorry, it’s not you, it’s me’ (yeah, right). 

Interested in reading more on how to retain top talent? Read our blog post for five top tips for reducing employee turnover.

Wellbeing

39% of employees have seen an improvement in their mental health due to flexible working. With mental health seeing a worrying decline in the last few years, this is something employers should take very seriously.  

Further, employers have a ‘duty of care’ to their employees. This means they have a legal obligation to do all they reasonably can to support health, safety and wellbeing. This is a grey area (what is ‘reasonable’?) but it’s an important consideration for organisations that are striving to achieve best practice.  

If you’re already embracing homeworking practices, skip to H&S considerations for homeworking to learn more on how to look after mental health and wellbeing.  

Alternatively, if you’re looking for additional ways to improve employee morale, try reading how to keep up workplace morale in 2021. 

Cons of flexible working

Payroll

This flexible working stuff could cause a headache for the most important people in your business: your payroll team. And you do not want to miff them off. Or you may get a bit of a shock come pay day – eek! 

Now, for payroll purposes, employees working compressed hours or doing flexitime can be treated the same as full-time employees i.e. their pay stays the same, as does their holiday entitlement. So that’s nice and easy. 

And obviously, if employees are working from home, this will have zero impact on payroll! 

However, where employers allow employees to work different/fewer hours, this is going to change things for payroll. 

For part-time workers, it’s straightforward stuff as the hours are fixed each week / month. If you’ve already got employees working part-time hours and would like help their calculating holiday entitlement, try our popular blog: how to easily calculate holiday entitlement for part-time workers.

For workers who work annualised hours things get more complicated. Will employees be paid in equal instalments throughout the year? Or only for hours worked during the pay period? When can employees on annualised hours take holidays?  

To avoid confusion, the finer details need to be stated in an employment agreement and shared with your lovely payroll team. 

Recruitment

One potential issue with this more flexible approach concerns employees who can work anywhere, any time. If we shift to this way of working, then surely it doesn’t matter where an employee lives. They could be in Bolton or Hawaii. But what does this mean for the job security of UK employees? Will their jobs be taken by offshore workers?  

Find out more about hiring of offshore talent or ‘anywhere employees’ here.

On the flip side, offering flexible working arrangements will widen your talent pool. And not just to offshore workers! Think about primary carers who have plenty to offer an employer but can’t start at 9am due to childcare commitments. The provision of flexitime could open the doors to a raft of talent. 

There’s also reason to believe that increasing flexible working opportunities could reduce the gender pay gap. Yes, really! More on that here: the four-day working week: a resolution to the gender pay gap?

What employees think

  • 81 %
    of those who have access to remote working believe it increases their productivity
  • 51 %
    of employees say job flexibility is more important to them than salary
  • 39 %
    of employees have seen an improvement in their mental health due to flexible working
Source: CIPD: Flexible Working Business Case, Business Wire: Workplace Flexibility More Important to Workers Than a Pay Rise, Wildgoose UK: The Flexible Working Survey
Chapter 4

Can you refuse a flexible working request?

    In this chapter you will learn...
  • How to handle flexible working requests
  • The grounds for refusal

How must employers handle flexible working requests?

There are a couple of employer obligations set out in the law: 

  • 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. 

OK, so how do you respond in a ‘reasonable manner’? It’s a bit woolly isn’t it?  

Here are a few things we’d advise you to do.  

Firstly, write to the employee acknowledging receipt of the application. In that same letter or email, suggest a date when you will meet with them to discuss their application. Remember the worker has the right to be accompanied to this meeting. 

It’s also advisable to put in the letter when the organisation is likely to agree or disagree with the request. Also, you may wish to mention that (where necessary) an extension of time may be required to consider the application. 

Next, make sure the request is considered objectively – you’ll need to assess both the advantages and disadvantages of the application. This should then form part of a meaningful discussion with the employee during the meeting.  

It’s important to know here that if an employer doesn’t handle a request in a reasonable manner, the employee can take them to an employment tribunal. And yes, tribunals are stressful and costly, so you’ll really want to avoid that. 

What are the grounds for refusing a flexible working request?

‘Computer says no’ is not a valid reason for declining a request. There are however eight ‘official’ grounds for refusing an employee’s flexible working request.   

  1. The burden of additional costs
  2. An inability to reorganise work amongst existing staff
  3. An inability to recruit additional staff
  4. A detrimental impact on quality
  5. A detrimental impact on performance
  6. Detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand
  7. Insufficient work for the periods the employee proposes to work
  8. Planned structural changes to the business

We explain each of these reasons in more detail in our blog post: eight reasons for refusing a flexible working request.

Chapter 5

How do you implement flexible working practices?

    In this chapter you will learn...
  • Policies and procedures
  • Other considerations

OK, so if you get hit with a flexible working request that you agree to, you’ll need to action any outcomes accordingly. Of course, you may also decide that flexible working is something you want to offer to all your employees. In this scenario, there are a few things you’ll need to consider. 

How to write a flexible working policy  

A great place to start is writing a policy. It might start by explaining the reasons why you’re endorsing flexible working practices.  

It should also clearly set out which kinds of flexible working arrangements are available to your employees (because remember there are several different types of flexible working options). You’d also want to cover off all the finer details like who can apply and what the process looks like.  

Here’s what your policy might include: 

  • The different flexible working options at your company, e.g. 
    • Part-time 
    • Flexitime 
    • Compressed hours 
    • Remote working  
  • Employee eligibility  
  • How employees make a request  
  • How you employer will respond to the request and within what timeframe  
  • The grounds for refusing the request 
  • The process for appealing a decision 
  • Trial periods (where applicable) 
  • Changes to the employment contract  

Other considerations

Communication

This is biggie. If you’ve got employees working at different times or in different locations, how do you ensure clear lines of communication? Could you end up with siloed working and duplication of work?  

To combat communication issues, you’ll need some decent tools to help you. Of course, since the pandemic, many businesses have invested into this area and are already set up with things like Microsoft Teams and Zoom for team planning and virtual calls.  

In addition to this, line managers should be well-versed in the importance of regular catch ups with team members. If employees aren’t always in the workplace at the same time, give them an opportunity to share feedback and concerns with their manager.  

Whether it’s a quick chit-chat about their new, cordless hoover (which for many, is a life-changing invention), or a more formal conversation about their career prospects – this stuff will drive your culture too!

Performance management

This is an area that many organisations struggle with – and that’s without the added complexity of flexibly working employees. Setting objectives, measuring performance, conducting one to ones, providing feedback – it’s the same stuff, you may just need to adapt some of it to suit employees who aren’t in the workplace full-time.  

We explain more on this in our helpful blog post: the process of performance management for homeworkers: 10 top tips.

Implementing a hybrid working model?

Watch our webinar recording hosted by our in-house employment law experts. It explains everything you need to know when implementing a hybrid working model.

Chapter 6

What are the H&S considerations for homeworking?

    In this chapter you will learn...
  • Risk assessment requirements for homeworking
  • Mental health considerations

Risk assessments

Government guidance clearly states that employers must do a risk assessment for their home workers to comply with H&S regulations.  

This means Display Screen Equipment (DSE) assessments. You’ll need to cover the following key areas:  

  • Does the employee have the right environment and setup to work safely? 
  • What is the lighting like?
  • What about the height of their desk and the suitability of their chair?

Unfortunately, many employees have been working at breakfast bars, slumped on the sofa, and lounging on beds. This (long-term) is very bad for their physical health and must be a consideration for employers if they allow employees to work from home. 

Mental health considerations

Where you have some employees in the workplace and others working from home – how do you keep these groups connected? Long-term homeworking can lead to feelings of isolation if this isn’t managed and considered fully from the outset. 

Another important factor is how you encourage employees to differentiate between office time and home time. When they work from home, how do employees switch off? Or are they always on? This feeling can cause stress and anxiety. One way to tackle this is to clearly advocate your position as a company and ensure those holding senior positions lead the way e.g. avoid sending emails outside of core working hours.  

You don’t want to be too stringent on this though. For some, the flexibility of starting work late to do the school run, and then working in the evening to make up the hours is very appealing. It can actually support work-life balance. 

Chapter 7

Guide download

    In this chapter you will learn...
  • That you can download a take-away guide

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