There’s an almost inexhaustible array of arrangements which might be described as flexible working, including job sharing, working from home, compressed hours, term-time working or just changing your hours – it doesn’t always have to mean working part-time.

Flexible working isn’t a term of art, and has no special legal meaning, however it is commonly associated with an improved employee work-life balance. It also has benefits for an employer, as a workplace which truly embraces flexible working for everyone has been found to lead to greater job satisfaction, improved loyalty and is recruitment positive.

The legal right to request flexible working

The right to request flexible working (as opposed to the right to demand it) was first introduced in 2002 and originally covered only those who had caring responsibilities for children or others. However, in June 2014 the right was extended to all employees, regardless of the reason why an individual wanted to work flexibly.

Legally, an employee is entitled to make a request to their employer for a permanent change to their terms and conditions relating to their working hours, times or location.

Gender discrimination and flexible working

Male employees can face stigma in the workplace if they request flexible arrangements, as they are traditionally regarded as providers rather than carers. Society has traditionally expected women to take on caring roles within families which is the norm in many cultures.

Statistics suggest this is still the case in the UK, with estimates that women with dependants are three and a half times more likely to work part-time than men with dependants.

In turn, this leads to a gap in average pay between men and women, as part-time jobs tend to be more junior and lower paid and workers commonly sacrifice career progression when they go part-time.

Anecdotally, men who request flexible working arrangements are more likely to be turned down than women. However, pressure is slowly mounting on employers to increase flexible working options for all staff, and the Government has pledged to set up a task force to review how flexible working is working in practice. Realistically it is likely to take quite some time before it is as culturally acceptable for men to make flexible working requests.

Tips for employees requesting flexible working

Check your existing flexible working policy

Check your employer’s staff handbook or intranet to see if it has its own flexible working policy. If so, this should set out what you have to do to make a request; follow this policy to the letter.  For example, meet any stated timescale, provide all the information requested and send to the correct person/department.

Submit your request in writing

Don’t worry if your employer doesn’t have its own flexible working policy – the law lays down a framework for you to follow.

A formal flexible working request can be made by any employee (regardless of whether they have children or need to care for an elderly relative), but only once they have been employed for 26 weeks. Requests to work flexibly must be in writing, be dated and state the date of any previous request to your employer.

Include all the details of your request

Although it is likely that your employer will invite you to a meeting to discuss your application in more detail, it can be really useful to put as much information into your request as possible. This will ensure that everything is recorded and your employer can have a chance to consider it in depth.

Your application should include the following information:

  • What change you are requesting. For example, do you want different hours, part-time days, home working etc.
  • When you want this to take effect
  • Why you want or need the change and the effect it will have on your work
  • How you think this will affect the business
  • Whether the request is in relation to the Equality Act 210. For example, it is a reasonable adjustment for a disabled employee.

The effect that your proposed working arrangements will have on the business may be positive, such as increased efficiency or money saving. If you think the change may have a negative effect, then try and come up with ideas to mitigate this.  If you think the change will be neutral, then say so.

Remember flexible working is a permanent change

Unless you agree on a time limited change (which most employers will probably be reluctant to do and are not required to do so), remember that what you are actually asking for when you request flexible working arrangements is a permanent change to your employment terms and conditions. If your request is accepted, it is unlikely that you will be able to revert to your current terms at a later date.

It should also be noted that each employee can only make one request every 12 months, so it will be beneficial to take some time to consider the details of your request. Do your homework and get it right – otherwise you will be waiting a while before you can ask again.

Consider your employer’s point of view

An employer can only turn down a request to work flexibly on eight grounds which are laid down by law. These are:

  • The burden of additional costs,
  • Inability to reorganise work amongst existing staff,
  • Inability to recruit additional staff,
  • Detrimental impact on quality,
  • Detrimental impact on performance,
  • Detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand,
  • Insufficient work for periods employee proposes to work,
  • Planned structural changes to the business.

It is not acceptable for the employer to say it has a policy any employee of a certain level must work full-time. It is also unacceptable to deny flexible working on the grounds that the employer ‘wants everyone in the office’ or that ‘it has enough people working flexibly’.

Some employers or particular managers may be prejudiced against the idea of flexible working, but this is not a legitimate reason to turn down your request.

Try and anticipate what your employer may find problematic about your request and come up with some solutions to try and overcome their concerns. If your employer is nervous, be prepared to have a trial period to show how your requested arrangements could work in practice.

An employer must decide upon any request within three months of receipt, and this time limit includes hearing any appeal. Once your request has been made, keep an eye on the calendar and chase up your application. Remind your employer about the timescale if you haven’t heard anything.

Remember discrimination law also applies

Quite apart from the statutory right to make a flexible working request, equality and discrimination law may also be relevant to your own particular circumstances.

The protected characteristics of sex, age and disability are likely to be the most relevant but, it will all depend on why you are making your request and who else within your organisation is able to work flexibly.

Employers need to be aware that even if they turn down a flexible working request on one of the permitted grounds, this does not excuse them from the provisions of the Equality Act. The act may still render their refusal of your request unlawful discrimination (either indirect or direct).

The future of flexible working

In October 2017 the then Prime Minister made a speech about closing the gender pay gap, in which companies were called upon to advertise all jobs as flexible from day one, unless there are solid business reasons not to. So, it is possible we may see some changes to the legislation along these lines in the future.

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