What is the future of flexible working?

The recent trial of a 4 day week and the government plans to make flexible working requests a day-one right show a clear trend: the way in which we work is changing and employers are having to adapt to new ways of working and new employee expectations, says Sarah Furness, partner in the specialist employment law team at AIM Associate Supplier Hay & Kilner.

It wasn’t long ago that many employers would have balked at the idea of hybrid and home working and now, accelerated by the pandemic, these are very much the norm and flexible working remains very much on the agenda.

Many employers remain sceptical about flexible working, though the benefits are becoming increasingly clear. Implemented well, it can lead to increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, better employee wellbeing, and improved recruitment and retention. However, flexible working arrangements are often implemented without sufficient thought and attention to detail. It is not uncommon to see employees being expected to cram the same amount of work in to four days as they did 5, for example, or having to pick up emails or calls when not working; ultimately continuing to do largely the same work but in less time and for less pay.

Flexible working is far more beneficial to employees and the organisation when there is real engagement with it. With the proposed introduction of flexible working requests from day one of employment, employers are likely to see a significant increase in formal requests.

Although the ability to refuse a request will remain the same (as will the 8 potential grounds for lawful refusal), quick refusals without thought or due process risks losing talent, let alone the potential for claims of discrimination and/or constructive dismissal.

Simply put, talented employees are unlikely to hang around if an employer is not willing to consider their flexible working requests and a difficult recruitment market will reward employers who do. Of course, there will always be situations where a request cannot be accommodated but following a clear process and ensuring managers are well trained on dealing with requests (and equal opportunities issues more generally) will help greatly in avoiding potential issues.

Employer engagement in flexible working is the real key to tapping into its benefits, and as the government’s stated aim is to “make flexible working the default”, it is clear that this is an inevitability, rather than a temporary fad. Investing genuine time, thought and training into flexible working arrangements to ensure that work is redistributed fairly and teams are onboard with the change is vital. We also encourage employers to re-consider whether jobs that may have traditionally been done over 5 days a week, for example, really need to be.

What happens if that person is on holiday, off sick, or on a training course? Usually, the wheels keep turning and people adapt. Whilst simply expecting other team members to pick up more work is unlikely to be a long-term solution, provided the change in working pattern is handled correctly, employers may find that they can hire from a much wider and more diverse pool of candidates and that their existing employees are more engaged and productive than ever.

Whether or not the 4-day week becomes the norm, the call for increasingly flexible ways of working is growing and employers who embrace the potential and engage with it in a meaningful way now will be the ones the reap the benefits.

As an AIM member, you are entitled to 30 minutes of free advice from a member of our employment team so if you do have any queries, please head to our dedicated members page – https://www.hay-kilner.co.uk/aim-members-hr-assistance