What is flexible working?

Flexible working can take many forms – it may mean working part time (perhaps fewer hours per day, or fewer days per week), or working some, or all, of your work time from home. It can also mean working just in school term times (term time working), varying your hours according to peaks and troughs in work activity (annualised hours), or working longer hours in fewer days (compressed hours). It can also take the form of job sharing, or any combination of the above.

In 2014, the right to request flexible working was extended to all employees, not just those with caring responsibilities, meaning that today, any employee, in any size of business, has the statutory right to request flexible working provided that they have worked for their employer for at least six months.

What are the benefits of flexible working?

If you are reading this blog post, then the likelihood is that you are a working mum, so the benefits of flexible working to you as an individual no doubt seem obvious. Before setting up my own business, I worked full-time, commuting each day into London. Securing a three-day working week, two of which were from home, was invaluable in enabling me to spend quality time with my baby on my days off, take my pre-schooler to nursery every day, keep (just about) in control of the washing mountain by putting a load on between conference calls, and save on my travel costs.

However, there are lots of business benefits to flexible working as well. Examples of benefits include higher employee engagement levels, greater productivity, lower absence rates and better employee retention. It can help build a company’s employer brand, making it more attractive to new recruits. Flexible working can also allow businesses to access a more diverse pool of talent to which they might otherwise not have access, and reduce the ‘brain drain’ that can occur when valued employees do not return after maternity leave.  Homeworking combined with hot-desking can reduce an organisation’s accommodation costs, and flexing employee hours can help businesses better meet customer demands, whilst managing staffing costs more effectively.

Sounds like a no-brainer for everyone! So, how do I ask for it?

Yes, there is a mass of evidence to support the benefits of flexible working, and it is indeed your statutory right (if you have 26 weeks service) to request it from your employer, however you do need to think about your application carefully before you make it. You only have a right to ask, not for your request to be granted. Also, businesses are only obliged to allow you one request per year.

Your company may have its own policy and procedure for requesting flexible working, or it may not have any formal process in place. In either situation, your employer must deal with requests in a ‘reasonable manner’, which includes:

  • assessing the advantages and disadvantages of the application
  • holding a meeting with you to discuss the request
  • allowing you to appeal their decision if they have declined your request.

To make a formal request for flexible working, it must be in writing and include the following information:

  • The date of your application, the change to working conditions that you are seeking and when you would like the change to come into effect.
  • What effect, if any, you think the requested change would have on your employer’s business and how, in your opinion, any such effect might be dealt with.
  • A statement that this is a statutory request and if you have made a previous application for flexible working. If you have previously applied then you should include the date of that application.

Your employer is then obliged to deal with your flexible working request (including any appeal) within three months. The next step should be for your employer (this might be your line manager or someone from the HR department) to arrange a meeting to discuss your application.

Preparing for the meeting

Under the statutory requirements, an employer may only reject your request to work flexibly for one of eight specific business reasons:

  • the burden of additional costs
  • an inability to reorganise work amongst existing staff
  • an inability to recruit additional staff
  • a detrimental impact on quality
  • a detrimental impact on performance
  • detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand
  • insufficient work for the periods the employee proposes to work
  • a planned structural change to the business.

Whilst your application to work flexibly is most likely driven by a desire to meet your own work-life balance needs, you do need to consider your employer’s perspective to give your request the greatest chance of being granted. If your company does not currently have many flexible workers, then your employer will understandably be concerned about the effect that granting your request may have on their business.

Prepare for the meeting by considering each of the eight business reasons in turn, and what impact your proposal will have on them.  Identify the benefits it could have. Where you can see a potential negative impact, take a proactive approach and identify possible solutions for your employer to consider.

If your employer has concerns about how the proposed arrangement might work in practice, suggesting a trial period might help to reassure them, if it’s practical to do this.

After the meeting

If your employer agrees to your proposal and it constitutes a change to your terms and conditions (e.g. a change in working hours) then you should receive written confirmation of the change.

If your employer turns down your request then you do have a statutory right of appeal, which your employer must hear within the three-month period. Remember though that employers are not obliged to accept your request if it would impact negatively on the business in any one of the eight categories listed above.

Tips when considering making a request

  • Before making a formal request for flexible working, in most cases, it’s probably worth having a chat with your line manager first, to discuss your thoughts and sound out how receptive they are to your proposals. If they do have concerns or worries, or there are business issues which you are unaware of which might impact your proposal, then you will be aware of these and have opportunity to address them proactively.
  • If you’re planning to make a request to work from home them make sure you have childcare arrangements in place – working from home is not a substitute for childcare!
  • For home working, think about what technology you will need to make the arrangement viable – it might be as simple as using your mobile phone and home computer, or your employer’s IT security policies may mean that you need a laptop or other equipment. This could represent an increased cost to your employer, so think about how this could be counteracted, e.g. by greater productivity away from the office.
  • Your employer may be concerned about communication with the rest of the team – think about how this will be maintained, either through regular phone calls, skype, Messenger/Sametime, Facetime, Webex, for example.
  • If you are proposing to work part-time hours, think about what will happen to the work that you will no longer have capacity to do, and where this could be redistributed. Alternatively, consider whether processes could be changed to reduce the time taken for certain tasks.
  • If you don’t already have them, talk to your employer about putting output-based performance objectives in place so that they can clearly see what you are delivering. One of the biggest barriers to flexible working is a culture of presenteeism, where performance is measured on the basis of how many hours you sit at your desk, rather than what you actually deliver.
  • Avoid ultimatums, such as “if you won’t agree to this then l’ll have to resign” unless you’re prepared to follow through on it. If your employer is unable to accommodate your request, and you are certain that you want a different working arrangement, then you may find it helpful to speak to a specialist recruitment agency, such as Ten2Two, that recruits specifically for flexible roles.