The UK government is backing proposed legislation that would give workers the right to request flexible working arrangements from day one of their employment.
In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw millions of workers start working from home as lockdown orders were enforced, most employees continued to have flexibility over how and when they work, with many organizations now practicing a hybrid work model.
In 2021, the UK experienced an acceleration in the adoption of flexible working, according to research from software company Unit4. However, a survey published by Trades Union Congress (TUC) in October 2021 found that half of the 13,000 working mothers who were surveyed said their boss had rejected their flexible working request, or only accepted part of it. Furthermore, 86% of respondents who were already working flexibly said they have faced discrimination and disadvantages at work as a result.
Currently, employees in the UK are only allowed one request for flexible work arrangements per year, whereas the new bill allows for two requests per year. Additionally, the new legislation would require employers to consult with employees before being allowed to refuse a flexible working application. They would also be required to discuss other options before rejecting a request, while the deadline to respond to the flexible working applications will be reduced to two months, instead of three.
These changes will be particularly beneficial for employees, said Tracey Hudson, executive director at consultancy HRDept, adding that bringing forward the draft legislation now, during a cost-of-living crisis, will be appreciated by a lot of people who are trying to balance childcare and other caring responsibilities with juggling a new job.
“As it stands, all employees have the right to request flexible working, but they need to have worked for their employer for 26 weeks first, so those in new jobs will welcome such a right to help balance their bank balances and caring responsibilities,” she said.
Hudson added that even if flexible working is not something that an employee needs to rely on immediately, just the knowledge that it’s possible to apply for flexible working from day one will bring comfort.
According to the respondents of the Unit4 survey, there is a concern that if companies don’t get their approach to flexible working right, staff will leave. In the last 12 months, 39% of surveyed organizations had seen people quit for more flexibility elsewhere.
Broad support for flexible working
The proposed flexible working rules are part of the broad “Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill,” which is currently making its way through Parliament. The proposed legislation has broad cross-party support and is expected to be passed into law, though there is no timetable for final voting.
In a note accompanying its announcement of support for the bill, the government said, “Flexible working doesn’t just mean a combination of working from home and in the office – it can mean employees making use of job-sharing, flexitime, and working compressed, annualized, or staggered hours.”
HRDept’s Hudson said the desire for a four-day week is strong. Therefore, being able to request flexible working is high on job seekers’ list of priorities. There is a significant candidate shortage in the UK job market so employers who offer flexible working as a default or the ones who are proactively considering ways to improve the work-life balance of their teams will attract job candidates in a tough market, she said.
Although employers will now need to start amending their flexible working policies and updating their procedures to ensure they are compliant with the new legislation, Hudson said it is unlikely that there will suddenly be a huge influx of requests when these changes come into force.
“In small businesses, requests to work flexibly are often handled informally because the working relationships are closer, and SMEs [small and medium-size businesses] are brilliant at being agile in emergencies,” she said. “Employers are so focused on retaining their good staff, particularly as it’s so difficult to recruit, so in my experience they will be as accommodating as possible with their employees regardless of whether or not the government dictates that they do so.”
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