On the eve of the government’s consultation deadline for “Making Flexible Working the Default”, will we see radical changes to the way we work?

After all, the government has stated that it wants to take a world class approach to flexible working to ensure the opportunities and challenges of the post Covid-19 economy are maximised. In contrast, the TUC has criticised the government’s proposals, stating that they will not be the ‘game changer’ ministers are claiming.

Unfortunately, over the last few months the media has tended to focus on just one type of flexible work – hybrid – the magic compromise between home-work and office-work, largely ignoring many other forms of flexible working that can be applicable to a wider set of job roles and sectors: term-time working, job-sharing, compressed hours, annualised hours, self-rostering or shift-swapping to name but a few.

Even though the TUC revealed that four out of five workers in Britain want to work more flexibly in the future, the CIPD has shown nearly half of employees have yet to be given access to flexible arrangements.

What has the government been consulting on?

The original legislation giving the right to request flexible working was introduced in April 2003 and although it was expanded from initially applying to just parents and carers to include all employees with at least 26 weeks’ continuous employment, it has changed very little in nearly 20 years.

The current consultation has included whether to: make the right to request flexible working a day one entitlement; change the limits on the number of applications someone can make in a year; restrict the reasons employers can refuse requests; reduce the length of time an employer has to review a request; make temporary arrangements more common and introduce a requirement for employers to offer alternatives if the arrangement the employee requests is not suitable.

The TUC has described these proposed changes as ‘tinkering round the edges’ rather than providing ways to unlock the flexibility in all jobs. However, the CIPD has been actively campaigning for day one flexible working rights with its Flex from 1st initiative since February. It believes offering flexible working requests as a day one right will help make access more equal and bring significant productivity benefits to employers as well as improved wellbeing and work-life balance to more employees.

What should employers be doing?

An overhaul of the legislation will happen and there is no doubt that employers will have to respond to more requests to work in flexible ways within shorter time frames. However, the employers that choose to take a more proactive approach and build greater work flexibility into their business plans, job designs and recruitment processes now, will benefit from improved retention, diversity, competitiveness and overall productivity.

The most efficient and effective flexible working solutions come from clear communications and a willingness to experiment and create better ways of working both formally and informally. This does not mean automatically accepting every single request to work flexibly but ensuring that there is an open dialogue between line managers and staff to explore options.

It’s important that employers don’t just regard flexible working as ‘working from home’ but consider the much broader range of methods that look at what hours are worked and how they are worked as well as where they are worked. Inclusion and fairness have to be at the heart of flexible work and this means building supportive environments and cultures that continually plan, monitor, review, seek feedback and audit new ways of working, instilling trust and openness across an organisation. This doesn’t happen over-night, but the business benefits of more motivated and engaged staff, being more agile and responsive, in a rapidly changing and uncertain world is surely a big enough pull to make flexible working a business imperative?

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