Employment

Want to work wherever, whenever? Here’s what the new flexible working law means in practice

Workers will have the right to request major changes to their working life under the new rules

More of the UK’s largest employers are talking about a permanent move to more flexible working and “hybrid” offices after the pandemic, but will it really be available to all?

Have you dreamt of working whenever and wherever you chose? A newly passed law on flexible working will give you the right to ask for what you want the second you step into a new job. 

Employees will be entitled to request changes to their working hours, times or location, but there’s a very big catch – employers can still turn down the request for any business-related reason.

The government first announced its plans on flexible working back in September 2021, but it hit some bumps in the road when then-prime minister Boris Johnson cancelled plans for an employment bill, widely expected to include the provisions. 

Instead, the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill was brought to Parliament as a private members bill in June 2022 by Labour MP Yasmin Qureshi. 

Announcing the news, Qureshi said: “17.5 million working parents and carers in the United Kingdom will now be able to access greater flexibility in the workplace.” 

Jane van Zyl, chief executive of Working Families, said: “Having passed with cross-party support, this legislation confirms the fact that flexible working is no longer a nice-to-have: it’s a must-have, and it helps many people – especially those with caring responsibilities – stay and progress in work.” 

Are we entering a new era of freedom at work? Here’s what the new law means in practice.

What is an example of flexible working included in the new law?

While flexible working is most commonly associated with the ability to work from home or remotely, the new law also seeks to give employees more autonomy over when they work. Flextime allows employees to choose which hours of the day they work, which could change day to day, so long as they add up to a certain number each day – such as seven hours. 

Similarly, a system of annualised hours allows employees to choose which days they work, as long as they work a certain number of hours in total throughout the year. This means they could choose to work fewer hours over the summer months, and make up the time by working more in winter. 

Job-sharing enables the possibility of two (or more) people sharing the workload of a single full-time job. This means that employees who wish to work part-time are not restricted only to applying for roles advertised as part-time.

Can anyone ask for flexible working?

Technically, yes. Anyone in any role in the UK can make their request, putting forward an argument for why flexible working would be beneficial to them and their productivity. 

Of course, if your job requires you to be present in the cockpit of a plane or at the front of a classroom, a request to work in a different location, such as from home, will very likely be denied as being unworkable. But you may be able to request changes to your working hours, or to job-share. 

The bill has been criticised for not going far enough, as ultimately the employer can deny an application if they “have sound business reasons to do so”. This could mean anything from a possible drop in productivity to not having the technology to support remote working. 

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At present, half of new fathers and partners eligible for paternity leave have their request for flexible working denied by their employer, according to new research from the TUC. 

“[If ministers] are really committed to flexible work, they should give workers the legal right to work flexibly from their first day in a job,” said Paul Nowak, general secretary of the Trades Union Federation.

Nowak argues that it shouldn’t be the responsibility of the employee to fight for flexible working, rather they should be provided with the options available to them from the get-go. 

“Ministers must change the law so that every job advert makes clear what kind of flexible working is available in that role, so people know before they start a job whether it works for them and their loved ones,” he continued.

How can you request flexible working under the new law?

First of all, any request for flexible working needs to be put in writing to your employer. Whereas the old law allowed for one request each year, new legislation means you can request twice, and has shortened the amount of time in which your employer will need to reply with their decision.  

Like negotiating a pay rise, your request is likely to be better received if you lay out why flexible working would be beneficial for not only yourself, but also your colleagues and the businesses. 

The charity Working Families has a template letter anyone (not only those seeking flexible working for child care reasons) can use.

What to do if your request for flexible working is denied

There are eight grounds on which an employer can refuse a flexible working request, which include things like it being too costly, that they can’t reorganise work among existing staff, or that there’s not enough to do during the hours you propose to work.

“Although the regulations do allow an employee to apply for flexible working, there is no automatic right and the grounds for refusal are wide” says Richard Thomas, from Capital Law’s employment law team.

“Most businesses would be able to reasonably refuse a request under one of the grounds that suit their business.”

But, if your company has operated successfully during the pandemic, with everyone working at home, or with parents shifting their hours around to home-school children, it might be harder to argue that your post-pandemic request is detrimental.

If your boss turns down your request for flexible working, they should give a good explanation of why they can’t accommodate it.

And if your request is related to tasks such as childcare, Thomas says: “An employer who does decline such a request may also be at risk of a claim for sex discrimination.”

In a recent case, an Employment Tribunal found that refusing a female employee’s request for flexible working – which would have enabled her to collect her daughter from nursery – was an act of indirect sex discrimination.

If you would like to appeal the decision, there should be a process to do so with your employer. You may wish to highlight any problems with the reason your boss has given to reject the request, and why you feel this is unfair, discriminatory, or shortsighted. 

In some instances, you may not be able to agree on a flexible working pattern, but you can refer your request to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) who can help with mediation or their arbitration service

Big Issue Group has created the person-centred recruitment service, Big Issue Recruit to support people facing barriers to employment into sustainable jobs. To find out how Big Issue Recruit could help you into employment, or help your business to take a more inclusive approach to recruitment, click here.

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