All employees (whether they have children or not) have a legal right to request flexible working, once they have worked for their employer for at least 26 weeks. Being able to work flexibly may, at first glance, appear to be the answer to the work/life balance conundrum with no apparent downsides.
However, before making a flexible working request, it is important to consider all aspects of what’s involved. This means taking off the rose-tinted spectacles and thinking about what some of the disadvantages may be and how they may affect you.
The disadvantages of requesting flexible working
An employee’s legal right is only to request flexible working, not to be automatically granted it. If your employer has a good business reason, they can lawfully refuse your request. This can obviously lead to disappointment at best and outright conflict with your employer at worst. If your employer turns you down, you have to wait 12 months before making another application.
If you are lucky enough to be granted flexible working this is likely to require changes to your working practices, and these will be permanent – you will not be able to swap and change if you find these are not to your liking in practice (unless you have a very amenable employer!). The impact of these changes will affect you, your employer, your work colleagues and possibly your family and friends. So, what are the possible downsides to think about?
Flexible working often means working from home
For an employee, working from home may seem ideal. However, it’s sometimes difficult for other family members to respect or even fully understand the fact that although you’re physically at home, you are working and not free to do ‘other stuff’. You won’t be able to meet for a coffee, do housework or run errands for friends any more than if you were in the office!
Blurring the home / work balance
Hand in hand with the above comes the fact that when you work from home, it can be difficult to maintain a clear delineation between work and home. It’s all too easy to slip into working beyond set hours, with a “I’ll just get this done” mentality meaning you’re working into the evening rather than enjoying all important down time.
What’s more, colleagues working different hours, or your employer, may think it’s acceptable to contact you in what is not part of your working day – and you may find it hard to ignore them. Suddenly, that much valued afternoon off is filled up with work matters.
Working from home requires a high degree of self-motivation. It’s all too easy to procrastinate and avoid getting down to work. With no one looking over your shoulder, before you know it, half the day has gone. This can then lead to additional hours in the evening catching up on missed work hours, when you should be enjoying time with family.
How easy it is to communicate with your other colleagues (who in turn may be working from home themselves or in the office) will depend on your circumstances and employer. However, technological difficulties shouldn’t be underestimated.
You may find it unexpectedly difficult to work with colleagues who are working differently to you or at different times and you may find you have to be highly organised to co-ordinate communications, collaboration, planning and delivery.
Flexible working requests can cause employee isolation
While working alone from home may mean you can be at your desk by 7am, distraction free and still in your pyjamas if you want to, you also lose out on the energy and creativity of working with others. Missing out on the encouragement, camaraderie and general buzz of working as part of a team can leave you feeling both uninspired and isolated. That in turn can have a knock-on effect on your motivation and even the quality of your work. Studies in the USA have shown that an employee who works at home is at a higher risk of developing depression. Don’t underestimate how much you might miss those birthday cakes or end of the week drinks that make up so much of the social side of work.
Flexible working can take an almost infinite variety of forms. If you are simply changing the times you work, your salary should not be affected but if you are working reduced hours, you will obviously be earning less. As a result, your employer’s pension contributions will also reduce, and any bonus is likely to be pro rated. You will also accrue less paid holiday.
Part-time employees are protected against discrimination so that their terms and conditions must not be less favourable than a comparable full-time employee. However, working flexibly may lead to missing out on workplace events such as training which happen when you are not at work.
Possible lack of career progression
Part-time working is responsible for a significant element of organisations’ gender pay gaps. Women who go part-time tend not to progress so far or fast in their careers (either willingly or unconsciously) and so earn significantly less over their careers than men in full-time roles.
It’s a sad fact of life that attitudes to flexible working in some organisations are still less than positive. Anecdotal evidence suggests it is even more frowned on when it is a male employee making a request.
While it may manifest itself in subtle ways (thus making it more difficult to take action), an employee who makes a successful application for flexible working may find themselves sidelined from decision making and career progression because (entirely wrongly) their commitment is questioned.
Cultural change takes time and is happening slowly. However, with the government firmly behind facilitating flexible working for all, it is to be hoped that more employers will embrace flexibility for staff.
Being vulnerable in a downturn
Again, anecdotally, flexible working may make employees more vulnerable to redundancy in certain organisations. Clearly, any selection criteria for redundancy must be objective and non-discriminatory so dismissing someone because they worked flexibly would be unfair dismissal as well as, potentially discrimination.
Strain on your employer
Whatever the advantages to you of flexible working, it’s important not to ignore some of the disadvantages from your employer’s perspective. For some managers, switching to a new way of working and supervision can be difficult as the concept of not being able to see what someone is actually doing may be alien.
Employers effectively take a gamble when they grant a flexible working request. For flexible arrangements to work there must be give and take on both sides. If not carefully managed, flexible working can lead to inefficiencies and a drop in quality and communication.
The advantages of making a flexible working request
If you’re considering making a flexible working request, you’ve probably already thought long and hard about some of the many advantages. Flexi working can help you meet your other commitments such as being there to collect your child from school or dovetailing your working arrangements with your partner to minimise childcare costs.
Flexible working boosts productivity
It can also contribute to you being more productive, allowing you to work when you’re at your best. If you’re a morning person that might mean getting to your desk super early but allowing you to finish early too.
A reduction in overheads
Working from home or even in a co-working space can massively reduce commuting time and costs. A reduced commute (perhaps because your flexible arrangements allows you to commute out of peak times and therefore reduces your journey time) can also have a very positive effect, for example by reducing stress and lateness.
For your employer, flexible working can mean reduced costs and overheads as less office space and equipment is required and employee travel costs are reduced.
Improved employee morale
Flexible working arrangements can boost employee well being by reducing stress and strengthen loyalty. A boost to morale helps with levels of absence and can improve productivity. Different working hours and the extended use of technology might even mean your employer can offer extended hours, services or a greater range to clients or customers.
Flexible working helps recruitment
Recruitment is nearly always a key area for employers so building a reputation as an understanding employer who is flexible and who both trusts and accommodates their employees can enhance an employer’s reputation in the labour market. By making flexible working a success you can assist your employer in strengthening its credentials.
Be honest with yourself when making a flexible working request
Before making your flexible working request, it’s really important to be honest with yourself about what sort of person you are. How self-motivated and disciplined are you and do you respond well to time spent on your own?
You will also need to carefully consider what IT resources you will need to have to ensure your working practices don’t become less efficient. What level of support can your employer offer to get you set up with the right technology and how reliable are its systems?
For more information on making a flexible working request, please do not hesitate to get in touch with one of our employment law specialists who will be able to offer expert advice and guidance.