The office is running smoothly, your employees are in at 9 and don’t leave until 5. It’s productive and you’re happy. But then Sally in accounts asks to work at home one day a week, David from sales wants to go part-time and Denise puts in a request to start later on certain days. Already, you can feel your stress levels rising as you ponder, “How am I going to deal with that? It sounds like nightmare”. 

The good news is it doesn’t have to be.

What is flexible working?

Flexible working is a way of working that is tailored to suit the employee's needs and is an alternative to traditional set working hours. It could include working from home or flexible start and finish times. Most employees' have a right to ask for flexible working. However, you shouldn’t view it as a challenge for your business but rather an opportunity. It is likely to be the main way of working for more than 70% of employers by 2020, according to a recent report. And if you want to make it work for your business you need to develop flexible working practices.

Why should I consider flexible working for staff?

One of the biggest misconceptions about flexible working is that it is only for people with children or for carers – but that’s no longer true. Long hours in a fast-paced job can be stressful, so rather than burning out, a different working pattern might be better. 

This way of working gives staff more freedom, to a degree, to choose the hours they work, where they work them and when. As a small business, incorporating those ideals into your company can seem counterproductive initially but not only are you likely to increase your staff retention rates, have a happier workforce and improved productivity, you’ll also have a wider pool of talent to choose from when it comes to recruiting. 

The benefits of flexible working have been experienced widely. According to one survey of 8,000 global employers and employees, 83% of respondents said flexible working had led to improvements in productivity. A further 61% said it had increased company profits.

Employees’ rights to request flexible hours – and how employers should deal with it 

Changes in the law in June 2014 meant that staff could apply for flexible working even if they didn’t have children or acted as someone’s carer.

Now any employee who has 26 weeks’ continuous service is entitled to make one written request for flexible working within a 12-month period. There are exceptions though, for example, if they are a member of the armed forces or an agency worker. However, if they are an agency worker who has employee status, has been continuously been employed for a period of no less than 26 weeks or is returning to work from maternity or paternity leave they will be able to make a request.

As an employer, you should have a set policy in place that can be accessed by all your employees. All applications for flexible working should be made directly from employee to employer and stick to what is set out in the Employment Rights Act 1996.

The request must be:

  • In writing
  • Be dated
  • Be clear that it is a request for flexible working
  • Be clear about the change the employee would like to make
  • State the date the employee would like the change to start
  • Outline the benefits the employee thinks the change would make to their role and to their employer – and how any changes could be dealt with
  • Mention whether any previous application for flexible working has been made to that employer and if so, when

The change doesn’t have to be permanent – for example if changes need to be made for bereavement or for a period of short study leave, an agreement can be reached whereby the original working pattern resumes after the agreed fixed period. In addition, HR software can help manage staff planning and hours to mitigate any additional work the changes bring about.

You should acknowledge the request in writing and give a decision within three months of the date the flexible working request was made.

Can I refuse a flexible working request? 

You can decline a flexible working request for one of the following reasons: 

  1. There will be a burden of additional costs
  2. It will have a detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand
  3. It would not be possible to re-organise work among existing staff
  4. You would be unable to recruit additional staff
  5. It would have a negative impact on quality
  6. It would have a detrimental impact on performance
  7. Insufficiency of work during the periods the employee proposes to work
  8. You have planned structural changes

If you do decide to reject the application you should tell the employee which of the above reasons applies and why you think they apply. They may of course be perfectly valid reasons but you also need to consider that more flexible working models are being employed across all businesses now and if you aren’t able to offer such practices it could have a detrimental effect.

The UK is already facing a skills gap and if you’re not offering the most competitive benefits, including flexible working, your recruiting could suffer. In addition, the cost of replacing staff is estimated to be up to £30,000.

Types of flexible working

There are many different ways of working flexibly. Some of the options that you are most likely to come across in your small business are:

Part time working – employees will be contracted to work less than standard, basic, full-time hours.

Working from home – employees will spend all or part of the week working from home or somewhere else away from the working premises

Job sharing – a full-time job can be split between two employees who agree the hours between them

Compressed hours – employees cover their standard working hours in fewer working days

Flexi-time – employees have the freedom to work in any way they choose outside a set of core hours determined by the employer

To conclude, before the law changed, the rules in the working world were much more rigid. The change in law intended to encourage a much wider range of applicants to submit requests to their employers. There has also been plenty of research to indicate that a flexible workforce is a happier and more productive one. With high-speed internet connections available almost everywhere, this can mean that employees do not necessarily have to be confined to an office for the standard 9-5 office-based routine and will hopefully encourage more people to work or to stay in work.

Part-time holiday calculator