Today (30 June) marks the extension of the right to request flexible working to all employees with more than 26 weeks service. It’s deemed significant enough to feature on the headlines of Radio 4’s flagship Today programme, and to have attracted this slightly hysterical article in the Daily Mail – so what does it mean in practice for small business?
Firstly, up to today, the right to request flexible working was restricted to those with young families or caring responsibilities (e.g. looking after an elderly relative). And to make this request there was a formal process with specified deadlines which both employer and employee to follow.
From today, anyone who’s worked for you for 26 weeks or more can make a request – without having to give you a reason why – and the cumbersome paperwork is no longer required (in reality, very few small employers bothered with the bureaucracy anyway).
The important thing is that it’s a right to ask. It’s not a right to demand. You can legitimately refuse a request if it would add to your business costs, provide a worse service to customers, affect quality or productivity, if you cannot reorganise workloads or recruit additional staff, or if there is not enough work at the time the individual wishes to work. In other words, the same common sense reasons why you wouldn’t make any other change to your business.
However, don’t make your default position “no”. Despite the tabloid nonsense, most people will make a request because they have something going on in their life outside work that is impacting on work. A small adjustment might be all that’s needed to retain and motivate a member of staff. And it’s not “take it or leave it” – you can discuss options with the employee concerned and often come to a solution that works for you and them. Again, in my experience smaller employers are not only willing to try to accommodate requests, but actually find that it can be an advantage in attracting staff from competitors. It’s the big bureaucracies with their fear of “setting a precedent” that are less willing to be flexible.
It’s ironic of course that for years business leaders and employers’ organisations have been calling for workers to be more “flexible and adaptable”. Since employment is a relationship, it’s not unreasonable that some employees might want their employer to be flexible too. But in practice, despite the scaremongers, I’m not expecting that my phone will be in meltdown today as hundreds of employees besiege my clients with flexible working requests!