UK workers to be given right to request flexible working

Every employee in Great Britain will be given the right to request flexible working – regardless of time served – under Government plans to modernise the way we work.

Under the plans – delivering on a commitment set out in the Government’s 2019 manifesto – around 2.2 million more people will be given the right to request flexible working.

The proposals consider whether limiting an employee’s application for flexible working to one per year continues to represent the best balance between individual and business needs. The consultation also looks at cutting the current three-month period an employer has to consider any request.

If an employer cannot accommodate a request, as can be the case, they would need to think about what alternatives they could offer – for example, if they couldn’t change their employee’s hours on all working days, they could consider making the change for certain days instead.

The consultation looks at a range of flexible working methods such as job-sharing, flexitime, compressed, annualised and staggered hours, as well as phased retirement – not just working from home.

It allows employees to balance their work and home life, including helping people who are managing childcare commitments or other caring responsibilities as well as ensuring that people who are under-represented in Britain’s workforce, such as new parents or disabled people, have access to more opportunities.

The proposals are also good for British business. Research has shown companies that embrace flexible working can attract more talent, improve staff motivation and reduce staff turnover – boosting their business’s productivity and competitiveness.

However, there are some circumstances where businesses will not be able to offer flexible working. That’s why the Government is clear that they should still be able to reject a request if they have sound business reasons and will also respect freedom of contract rather than prescribing specific arrangements in legislation.

The recent proposals instead provide a framework to encourage conversations and balance the needs of employees and employers. Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said: “Empowering workers to have more say over where and when they work makes for more productive businesses and happier employees.

“It was once considered a ‘nice to have’, but by making requests a day one right, we’re making flexible working part of the DNA of businesses across the country.

“A more engaged and productive workforce, a higher calibre of applicants and better retention rates – the business case for flexible working is compelling.”

The proposed changes would also mean that all applicants will know they can ask for flexible working before applying for a job. Equally, employers will need to consider whether they can offer flexible working before advertising.

When outlining the proposed changes, the report also included various benefits of flexible working for businesses, which include:

  • Attracting top talent – according to the Timewise Flexible Jobs Index, 87% of people want to work flexibly, rising to 92% for young people, according to UKCES.
  • A highly motivated, productive workforce – 9 in 10 employees consider flexible working to be a key motivator to their productivity at work – ranking it as more important than financial incentives, according to statistics from HSBC. Employers have also reported seeing improvements in staff motivation and employee relations.
  • More competitive business environment – the CBI Employment Trends survey found that 99% of all businesses surveyed believed that a flexible workforce is vital or important to competitiveness and the prospects for business investment and job creation.

This comes as the Government also announces that it will be fulfilling another 2019 manifesto commitment to give unpaid carers who are balancing a job in addition to caring for a dependant with long-term needs one week’s unpaid leave, as a day one right.

Labour Markets Minister Paul Scully said: “Millions of people face the dual challenge of balancing full or part-time work with other responsibilities such as caring for loved ones.

“By introducing one week of additional leave for unpaid carers, we will give these unsung heroes greater flexibility to help them better manage their personal and working lives, while giving them greater access to the job market.”

The Government response to the consultation on carer’s leave will confirm key elements of what the leave entitlement will look like:

  • One working week of unpaid carer’s leave (per employee, per year) will be available as a day one right to those managing caring responsibilities for those with long-term care needs alongside work.
  • Eligibility, both in terms of who the employee is caring for and how the leave can be used, will be broadly defined.
  • The leave will be available to take flexibly (i.e. from half day blocks to a whole week).
  • There will not be an extensive administrative process to ensure legitimacy of requests to take Carer’s Leave as the leave is unpaid.

The measure will also look to balance the needs of the employee with the employer, with a minimum notice period of twice the length of time being taken, plus one day (in line with annual leave notice periods).

Minister for Women and Equalities Liz Truss said: “As we move beyond the pandemic, we must seize the opportunity to make flexible working an option for everyone.

“No-one should be held back in their career because of where they live, what house they can afford, or their responsibility to family.

“I want everyone to have the same opportunities regardless of the background or location. This is the right thing to do for workers, families and our economy.”

Tim Bailey, Zurich UK’s CEO said: “We welcome the launch of this consultation. Zurich has been a flexible working employer for over a decade with employees now benefiting from a hybrid approach to working arrangements.

“As the first company in the UK to advertise all vacancies with the option of part time, full time, job share or flexible working, we’ve seen more than double the number of applicants from men and women for new roles.

“By offering roles that fit flexibly around family life, employers open the doors to a much wider pool of untapped talent. This will also help people progress into higher paid jobs whilst fitting other commitments around their careers. Workers want a new deal and there’s a danger that businesses that don’t get on board, won’t be able to compete for the best candidates.”

Paul Hamer, Chief Executive of Sir Robert McAlpine, said: “Sir Robert McAlpine welcomes the consultation from Government to allow employees to request flexible working from day one– a step in the right direction for the UK workforce and businesses alike.

“We strongly believe that at the core of every successful business is a motivated and happy workforce, and this means encouraging a flexible working culture to shake off the constraints of traditional and rigid working arrangements.”

José Luiz Rossi, Managing Director, Experian UK & Ireland said: “We welcome the Government’s focus on flexible working. The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a fundamental shift in our ways of working and, while we don’t yet have all of the answers, we view the pandemic as an opportunity to adopt new ways of working where the majority of our workforce are given flexibility to work to a pattern that suits them regardless.

“It is important we give colleagues choice and flexibility to work in the most effective and beneficial way possible. We know more flexibility is what most colleagues want and we also see the benefits in collaborating in our offices when required.”