The UK government has announced proposals to make flexible working requests a ‘day one’ right for employees, as part of reforms to the Flexible Working Regulations 2014.
Over the past 18 months, the pandemic has been a catalyst for increased flexible working. Although this has meant ‘working from home’ for most, flexible work can include other arrangements such as flexitime, job-sharing, condensed hours and part-time work. Existing legislation currently gives all employees with 26 weeks continuous service the right to request flexible working arrangements from their employer. However, under the proposed new plans, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) seek to go further by reforming the Flexible Working Regulations 2014 and empowering employees with a ‘day one’ entitlement to request flexible work. It is anticipated that this would equip around 2.2 million additional people with the right to request an alternative to their standard working hours and practices.
The BEIS consultation
In June 2021, the government announced that it would commence a consultation over proposals to reform flexible working regulations and, specifically, the Flexible Working Regulations 2014. The consultation is currently ongoing and will remain open until 1 December 2021. It considers:
- removing the 26-week qualifying service period for the right to request flexible working;
- the need for employers to propose alternatives if they refuse an employee’s request;
- whether the eight current business reasons for refusing a request should be amended;
- reducing the three month period that an employer currently has to handle a request;
- whether employees should be able to make more than one request per year; and
- how the administrative process can be improved.
It should be noted that removal of the qualifying service period is not expected to grant employees an automatic right to flexible work and approval will continue to remain at the employer’s discretion provided they can present a clear business rationale for any rejections.
Employers can currently reject requests for several reasons such as being unable to redistribute work to other staff members, being unable to meet the cost burden, or if flexible working would negatively impact on quality and performance. However, under new proposals, employers may be required to pose an alternative solution. Alternatives might include offering employees the right to change working hours on given days or allowing a temporary arrangement if permanent flexible work is not feasible.
What could the consequences be?
In September 2021, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng stated that “empowering workers to have more say over where and when they work makes for more productive businesses and happier employees. A more engaged and productive workforce, a higher calibre of applicants and better retention rate – the business case for flexible working is compelling”. Whilst making flexible working arrangements easier to obtain is a step in the right direction from an employee wellbeing viewpoint, the business case should not underestimate the unintended consequences that wide-spread flexible working could bring.
Many have faced challenges when home working throughout the pandemic, however, junior employees have been disproportionately affected when it comes to career advancement and development. This may explain why a survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that those in their 20s and 30s were most keen to return to the office post-pandemic. Success in the workplace relies on collaboration, guidance from others and learning opportunities – all of which can be harder to cultivate in an online working environment. In order to develop, new starters can be reliant on observational learning, or “learning through osmosis” and, even if they choose to attend the office, the absence of more experienced staff could deny them this opportunity.
Further, asking questions of co-workers, mentors or senior leaders is no longer as simple as turning to them in the office now that flexible working has increased. Instead, it is necessary to schedule a video call or find a suitable time to speak over the phone, something which may feel daunting to junior employees and new starters who are unfamiliar with the usual working practices of others. This may cause questions to go unanswered, consequently creating gaps in employee knowledge. Due to this, plans to modernise the workforce ought to be careful not to create an unintended skills gap.
Those further into their career have had the opportunity to build an established network of professional contacts and interact with different teams, be it whilst grabbing a coffee, during impromptu after work drinks, or even exchanging brief conversation in lifts. If workforces become more dispersed due to the rise in flexible working arrangements, then it may be harder for new recruits to integrate with the rest of the workforce and foster those all-important working relationships. Email exchanges also make it more difficult to leave a lasting impression and this risks inadvertently disadvantaging new employees when it comes to their future career prospects.
Segregation amongst staff may also become a by-product of flexible working as those with similar schedules may naturally tend to work with each other more frequently. For example, those who have children might organise their work around school pick up times, therefore being offline during certain hours of the day unlike those without caring responsibilities. If employers are not careful, this might cause teamwork and co-operation to erode over time.
What can employers do to help?
Employers can offset detrimental effects to employees by being proactive in creating a culture that is mindful of their needs whilst balancing flexible working requests.
Employers should consider:
- introducing new policies and procedures in relation to remote supervision;
- providing training to managers to ensure they are equipped to deliver effective mentoring and supervision;
- promoting regular 1-2-1 meetings, team meetings and daily check-ins to open up communication lines amongst colleagues;
- inviting junior members of staff to shadow calls and video conferences that they would ordinarily hear in an open office environment – this exposure will allow juniors to gauge body language and non-verbal cues to aid their understanding;
- setting clear objectives to give junior employees a focus and goals to work towards;
- investing in appropriate technology to better monitor the availability of colleagues;
- ensuring the opportunity for different teams to integrate so that new starters can build up a network of contacts; and
- increasing networking and social engagement opportunities.
Whilst the government are to be commended for listening to employees and putting employee welfare first, it would be prudent for them to acknowledge the unintended consequences that enhanced flexible working arrangements within the UK workforce will bring. In summary, it is crucial that employers secure a balance that is inclusive to all.