From 30 June 2014, the right to request flexible working will be extended to most employees with 26 weeks service. So how can you prepare and are there benefits to taking a positive approach? You have a few weeks before this takes effect so this is a good time to make sure you are prepared to handle requests and review the following:
Flexible working policy and procedures: review your policy and procedures for handling flexible working requests. Consider whether you wish to retain a form on which requests should be made. A form may help to guide the employee to provide the information that you need in order to consider the request, and may also encourage the employee to consider the effect on the business and how the request could be accommodated. In some instances, where attendance at set times is essential to meet business needs, you will need to consider requests in a structured way to ensure that the business needs are still met – and to document your justification for rejecting requests. In larger organisations, try to ensure that there is some consistency of approach, especially within similar working environments.
Employee handbook and related policies: don't forget to check related documents that may mention flexible working and may need tweaking – in particular your employee handbook, equal opportunity policy, maternity/adoption/paternity policy, maternity guidelines, diversity policy, career break and sabbaticals policy. Some may not need to change – but it's worth checking.
Try to predict the likely uptake: if you run regular surveys of employees, look to see whether there have been any previous suggestions/requests for more flexible hours or ways of working. You may wish to use your survey this time to try to gauge the likely uptake. It is very likely that you will start to receive more requests than previously, so do prepare for this.
Brief your managers: ensure that they are aware of the change in the law on making requests, that they know of the overall timescale for handling them, and that they have clear guidance on what to consider before jumping in and simply agreeing or refusing.
Consider work planning and how much flexibility you are able to grant: accommodating requests may ultimately result in more part-time workers, job-shares, home workers, term-time only workers, compressed hours or arrangements whereby the contracted hours are worked but there is more flexibility as to when (such as flexitime schemes) or simply set hours are spread over a longer period with some staff asking to arrive earlier and leave earlier, or arrive later and leave later. Now may be the time to have a useful evaluation of who does what and when, and may result in a more flexible and multi-skilled workforce if employees are better trained and able to cover for each other over staggered or reduced hours. This may give the business broader benefits. You may find that some tasks are better done outside of normal office hours (when it is quieter, and there are less interruptions) and also that you are able to offer a better client/customer service by having people working different hours.
Business benefits of a flexible approach
The advantages of offering more flexible working arrangements include enhanced job satisfaction (40% of SMEs believe the main benefit of flexible working schemes is increased staff satisfaction); a less stressed workforce; financial benefit to employees (such as reduced costs of travel, or childcare). Employers who have already embraced more flexible working practices have reported the following benefits:
- increased productivity
- better utilisation of workers – the arrangements are not always just one-sided as flexibility can work both ways, with work being done to meet the demands of the job and time off being taken in quiet periods reduced turnover and increased loyalty as people can fit demands of home life within their working lives and are noticeably more committed to the job
- a wider range of candidates who otherwise would be barred from applying for vacancies
- better timekeeping – if people can fit their working time around outside commitments (eg the school run, rush hour traffic) their ability to arrive "on time" may be enhanced and you will benefit from their presence, rather than having to manage their absences/lateness
- lower costs – time previously spent attending appointments, taking long lunch hours etc is now taken in the employee's own time
- better desk utilisation – "hot desks" can result in significant savings
- reduced casual absenteeism – in some environments employees take time off sick when they are not actually ill, in order to look after children, deal with personal or family emergencies, catch up on domestic issues etc. If employees can take this time off legitimately under a flexi- time scheme they may well do so instead of "pulling a sickie". Two-thirds of the organisations who offered flexible working believed that this helped reduce absence, as do flexible annual leave and occasional home working.
- retention of experience – older employers with particular experience may be happy to work on a part-time basis (especially since the relaxation of rules which previously prevented employees from drawing their occupational pension while working for the same employer).
The changes from 30 June may not result in an immediate tsunami of requests, but over time may result in a huge change in employee expectations. The key will be managing all requests openly and fairly, while still meeting the operational needs of the business and your customers/clients.