Flexible working rules have changed: is your business set up to meet the new requirements?

Did you know that the law relating to flexible working has changed? The Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Act gained Royal Assent last summer and became effective from the 6th April 2024. With a number of changes to the rules around flexible working, it’s important you’re aware of this and not exposing your company to any risks.

What does the term ‘flexible working’ refer to?

Flexible working has become an increasingly key issue for companies to manage well. Even more so since the pandemic as many people realised they could do their jobs successfully outside of the workplaces and working patterns they had previously been based in and following.

Flexible working can take quite a few different forms: working patterns or hours, like part-time, flexitime and term-time working for example, and compressed hours and flexible start and finish times. It’s not just about working patterns either. It also covers variations in location like fully remote working (often from home) or hybrid arrangements where an employee splits their working time between being based in a remote location and in a workplace.

A reminder of the pre-April 6th 2024 flexible working rules

Before April 6th, employees needed to have been employed for at least 26 weeks to request flexible working. They were entitled to make a single request in a 12-month period. As part of that request they needed to set out the potential impact on the employer, and their thoughts about what could be done to mitigate that impact.

The legislation did not provide a right to be given flexible working, only to request it. Employers had three months to review their request and respond. If they turned the request down, they were obliged to give at least one of the following eight reasons for refusing a request with a specific explanation – there had to be a clear and valid fact-based reason for refusal.

  • It will cost the business too much
  • We cannot reorganise the work among other staff
  • We cannot recruit more staff
  • There will be a negative effect on quality
  • There will be a negative effect on the business’ ability to meet customer demand
  • There will be a negative effect on performance
  • There’s not enough work for the employee to do when they’ve requested to work
  • There are planned changes to the business and the request will not fit with these plans

So what has changed?

In the new regulations the principle of employees still only having the right to request flexible working, rather than having the right for a flexible working request to be granted, remains the same.

But the new flexible working regulations which form part of the Act strengthen an employee’s ability to ask for greater flexibility in their role. They give employees the right to request flexible working arrangements from day one of their employment. And employees can make two requests (rather than one) within a 12-month period. They no longer need to provide any explanation about how their request could affect the company or offer any thoughts about how the impact could be addressed either.

Following consultation about the request, employers must now give their response within two months (rather than three). The eight fair reasons for refusal remain the same. If a request is going to be turned down, employers should consider any alternative options that could be offered to the employee as a possible way to find a compromise that suits both parties’ needs.

Have you taken any steps to update your approach to flexible working?

If you haven’t already updated your policy, you need to do so to ensure it meets the requirements of the new regulations. It seems likely that for many companies, these changes are going to encourage more employees to submit flexible working requests, and more frequently, so you do need to be ready for this. ACAS has published an updated code of practice on how to deal with requests for flexible working. So make sure your policy reflects its key points.

You should also make managers in your company aware of the changes. If they’re going to be dealing with requests, make sure they understand the updates to the legislation and emphasise the need to handle requests in a consistent way. Managers need to balance the requirement to assess flexible working requests effectively and fairly while also handling the practical implications of any operational changes that might need to happen if they agree to a request in their team. They must be clear on what a proper consultation with an employee would involve and know what would and wouldn’t be a fair reason for turning a request down.

Flexible working can present many positive opportunities

Flexible working can help employees work at their best, with big benefits for recruitment, retention, wellbeing and engagement. Approached in the spirit in which they’re intended, these changes could offer benefits to both companies and employees. After all, a happy employee who can strike a positive balance between their work and home life is a lot more likely to be a productive one!

Don’t forget, if you’d like some support managing flexible working in your company, we can help. Please do get in touch with us to have a chat about the various ways we can support you in making the most of the opportunities the changes offer while minimising any potential risks to your company.

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