At the end of June the right to request flexible working was extended to all employees. Previously it only applied to parents and carers. Surveys just before the new legislation came into force suggested many employers were either unaware of the changes or had made no plans to accommodate them.
A survey by online freelance marketplace PeoplePerHour found some 45% of small companies were unaware of the changes to flexible working legislation before they came in. Another 17% felt they did not fully understand the changes and what it would mean for them as an employer. Just 12% of those surveyed felt they had a full understanding of the legislation and their responsibilities as employers.
Another survey by online career portal Jobsite conducted just before the end of June showed 53% of British businesses were unaware of the changes and of those that were aware, 25% admitted they haven’t thought about the impact this could have on their business.
Will such employers be taken by surprise by the new legislation? Talk to many employers and they don’t anticipate being inundated with requests, basically because many already offer a certain amount of flexibility to their staff, such as homeworking. According to the Office for National Statistics, a record 4.2 million people or 13.9% of those in work work from home or use their home as their main base.
However, campaigners have stated that some employers may need more support. Gillian Nissim, founder of Workingmums.co.uk, says: “While we welcome the extension of the right to request flexible working to all employees – and the best employers already do this – we are concerned that many employers may not have used this opportunity to look holistically at their organisations and how they could benefit from a more flexible culture, rather than just considering individual requests as they come up.”
Another concern is that there have had to be some compromises as part of the extension process. For instance, there is no longer an automatic right of appeal if a decision is turned down, although Acas’ Code of Conduct recommends employers do offer an appeal. The timescale for the process is also more vague and there is no automatic right to be accompanied by a colleague in a hearing.
Nevertheless, the direction of travel is positive and towards the normalisation of flexible working. And if it is open to all parents who work flexibly will no longer face resentment from colleagues who are not able to access it.
In fact, the more progressive employers have been offering flexible working to all employees who are able to work flexibly for some time. Many have changed their entire work culture, including office outlay, to accommodate smart working. They include companies like Vodafone, which began their journey towards smart working by rationalising real estate to save money. However, with the backing of senior leaders, the work culture was transformed which helped the companies to make the most of smart working. This included hot desking, smarter ways of working being embedded in induction for new staff, an emphasis on management by results and a more creative use of space with different allocated areas for meetings, debate and concentrated work plus remote working supported by technology. Vodafone is now in the fourth stage of its smart working revolution, with the focus on employee wellbeing. Developments include spaces for gyms and restaurants being incorporated into office design. The smart working culture was being rolled out internationally with local culture determining around 20% of the style adopted.
More recently, the Government has come on board. New guidance produced by Flexibility.co.uk aims to roll new ways of working out across the civil service. Based on Flexibility.co.uk’s Smart Working Handbook, it sets out the principles and techniques for modernising working practices in central government. Commissioned by the Cabinet Office, it includes case studies of innovative practice as departments embrace smart working. Andy Lake at Flexibility.co.uk says: “The main benefits are around being more productive and delivering a better service. It’s about cutting out wasteful processes, greatly improving the time taken to make decisions, improving collaboration across government using new tools and techniques, and eliminating unnecessary travel. It’s about doing more and better with less.”
The extension of flexible working is one step towards a broader change in the way we work.