What is ‘flexible working’, and what should company owners do?

flexible working rules

Since it became law in June 2014 under the Children and Families Act, employees have had the statutory right to request flexible working once they have completed 26 weeks of continuous employment. Previously, employees could request flexible working to look after dependents, such as children, but this is no longer a requirement and now any employee can put in a formal request to work flexibly after they’ve been with the company for six months.

As the owner of a small business, do you have to agree to every request? How should you respond to an employee who wants to change his or her working hours? Here, we explain what you need to do to handle such requests in a fair and timely manner.

Some forms of flexible working

Applications for flexible working can include a request to change the number of hours worked; a change to the working times – starting earlier/finishing earlier, for example – and/or working from home. Ideally, you have a company policy on flexible working (see below) that sets out the procedure, but in any case, all requests should be made in writing and include the following: Date of the application and that it is a statutory request; the proposed changes and proposed starting date; how the employee thinks the change(s) may impact on the business and what they will do to help facilitate any adjustments. Employees are not required by law to say why they want to work flexibly although in practice many will.

How to handle a request for flexible working

Time is of the essence when it comes to processing a request for flexible working. Your decision and any subsequent appeal has to be concluded within three months of the date you receive the application. If possible, arrange a face-to-face meeting with the employee although the request can be discussed by phone. This is an opportunity to get a better understanding of why an individual wants to work flexibly and possibly even agree an informal arrangement, for example, if he or she is only looking for a temporary change in their hours or place of work. If the request is for a permanent change, however, you’ll have to go through the formal process.

At the meeting, you should discuss the practicalities of the proposed changes, if it can be accommodated and what other options may be available. Ideally, in the course of the meeting, you can come to an agreement that suits both parties. Make sure you take an accurate note of what is said and/or agreed. The employee can choose to be accompanied by a colleague at the meeting, although this is not a statutory right. Following the meeting, you should send the employee a letter, stating your decision.

Refusing an application for flexible working

After careful consideration, you may choose to refuse a request for flexible working provided one of the following conditions apply:

• The heavy cost to the business this would incur.
• Such a change would have a detrimental effect on performance or quality.
• Inability of the company to re-distribute the work, or reorganise existing staff.
• Impact the change would have on meeting customer demand for goods or services.
• Lack of available work at the time the employee wants to work.

If you’re refusing the request for flexible working arrangements for any of the above or other reasons, you have to clearly say what these are and how they apply. It’s important to show any refusal is based on sound business reasons. You should also notify the employee of their right to appeal your decision and the procedure to follow.

A flexible working policy

As stated above, in an ideal world you will have a flexible working policy for staff to refer to, if not, consider developing one. ACAS is a good source of information and guidance and you can download the statutory code of practice here. You can also download a template for a flexible working policy on the same page. This could be included with the employees’ contract. Remember, requests for flexible working should always be treated fairly and all employees treated equally throughout the process and employers who fail to respect employees’ statutory rights in this regard could end up facing an employment tribunal.