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Flexible working requests: What employees and employers need to know

Advice by Alan Price, CEO of BrightHR

According to several media reports, Ministers are preparing to make flexible working a permanent feature of UK life after the pandemic, with plans to strengthen employees’ rights to work from home or ask for different hours.

The Government will start a public consultation later this year on how to extend flexible working, potentially ensuring that people who have transitioned to a hybrid of home and office working during the pandemic will be able to maintain that pattern.

But what is the law on flexible working requests currently? Even pre-pandemic, flexible working was becoming increasingly popular. Many staff who have maintained altered working arrangements during the pandemic, such as working from home, may want them to continue going forward. If it has been made clear that such arrangements were temporary, an employee could pursue this to make a flexible working request.

Currently, it is up to employers if they choose to permit flexible working. This means that while all employees who have worked for a company for at least 26 weeks can make one request every 12 months, their employer does not need to agree to this. That said, they do need to provide sound businesses reasons for a refusal, and any change is considered permanent unless agreed otherwise.

The response to flexible working requests must be handled consistently and fairly. Employers should clearly evaluate why they approve or reject each request and be prepared to justify why this is to staff. If it appears that some employee requests are being approved over others, this could give rise to claims of favouritism and even discrimination.

To this end, the company’s stance on flexible working should be made clear to staff through ongoing communications and the distribution of a policy, if one is available. This should clearly set out the process for flexible working requests, how they will be considered, and no guarantees that any requests will be approved.

Some employers may be tempted to implement a blanket approach to this, stating that homeworking will not become the ‘new normal’ to discourage large numbers of requests for such an arrangement. However, they should remember that the ability to work flexibly may help with staff retention, maintain strong morale and even attract other talented individuals to the company that may not have come before. They should also bear in mind that individual circumstances are different; some staff may be better positioned to have increased flexibility due to the nature of their role than others, which should be considered.