Employers still have huge reservations about permitting more flexible working

Employers still have huge reservations about permitting flexible workingEmployers considering new flexible working options for their employees are concerned about the security and management implications, according to a recent poll, despite the fact that staff now have the legal right to request flexible arrangements. The survey of medium sized businesses, carried out for RSM by YouGov, found that over the next five years, three quarters of respondents were considering introducing flexible terms of employment, allowing workers to work outside 9 to 5 or increasing the use of remote working.

Broadly, employers appear to recognise the benefits of greater flexibility, with around three fifths of respondents saying that it had a positive impact on productivity, worker engagement and efficiency. However, some businesses expressed reservations about introducing more flexible working arrangements. IT security was the biggest risk (32 per cent) followed by concerns around the impact on customer service (28 per cent). A quarter of respondents (26 per cent) expressed fears about employees exploiting the system and said they were concerned about the effect of flexible working on team dynamics.

The poll also claims that around one in five firms (21 per cent) are happy with the flexible working arrangements they currently offer and have no plans to increase them, while 6 per cent said they had no intention of introducing flexible working. However it’s worth noting that employees who have 26 weeks or more of continuous service can, once a year, make a written request to their employer to change to work flexibly. Such a request can cover any flexible working arrangement such as the number of hours worked, the periods when hours are worked or the place of work – or a combination of all three.

The employer then has to provide a written decision within three months. If agreed, changes are made to the employee’s contract terms to reflect the new working arrangements.

The law recognises than an employer may have an entirely legitimate business reason for rejecting a request. However, employers must take care to ensure that they don’t breach the rules on a technicality, or, more importantly take a decision which may give rise to a Tribunal claim for discrimination.

Commenting on the findings, Carolyn Brown, employment lawyer and head of RSM Client Legal Services said: ‘Employers are becoming much more enlightened about the beneficial impact that flexible working arrangements can have on productivity, engagement and efficiency. Some larger employers are leading the way by offering employees much greater control over their working times and working patterns, and it’s highly likely that others will follow suit.

‘However, the successful introduction of more flexible working options is not a given. Employers need to ensure they deal with flexible working requests in a prompt and reasonable manner, ensuring consistency in decisions. This can be a particular challenge for larger organisations with a centralised HR function, but it is very important to mitigate any risk of a claim being brought for discrimination.

‘From a practical perspective, employers also need to ensure that managers are supported to manage team members that may work remotely or outside standard hours, in addition to providing support to the employees who are working flexibly.

‘Employers should also be aware, that once a flexible working request is granted, it can then be difficult to row back from that arrangement when business circumstances change. It’s therefore important that any request is considered from a long-term perspective.’