Workers may have new rights to request flexible working, but let’s not celebrate too soon

New flexible working rules are intended to normalise flexible work. However, in reality, they may do the opposite, says Molly Johnson-JonesThe new flexible working rules which came into force this month have been touted as a win – normalising and bringing clarity to the world of flexible work. However, in reality, they will do the very opposite. Under the new rules, workers now have the right to request flexible working from day one of employment. However, employers can take up to 2 whole months to respond to requests, and they do not have to be clear about their stance on flexible work beforehand. This is a huge oversight. Many workers rely on flexible working, and therefore need to know if arrangements are possible before they start new roles. Employers must be clear about their approach to flexible working from the outset, if we want to normalise flexibility in a way that allows both businesses and workers to benefit.

Research suggests that over half of workers are planning to put in a request for flexible working under the new rules. Companies that do not have clear policies around flexible working requests will be unprepared to handle the influx of new requests, promptly. This means staff will be left in limbo, and at risk of becoming resentful and disengaged.

If employers rush to answer requests they could also end up with “patchwork policies” for flexible work which are uneven across the organisation. This could result in a situation where some employees work remotely, a select few staff members work 4-day weeks, and others have their requests turned down. This will cause team divisions, and ultimately create an unhealthy and unproductive working environment.

Employers who are unable to accommodate flexible working could also end up agreeing to arrangements that they cannot sustain long-term, if they rely on a reactive approach to flexibility. This benefits no one. Workers who feel their requests were reluctantly granted may feel under pressure to work longer hours in order to prove their commitment to managers. Remote workers are also at risk of ending up in a Dell-like situation where they are passed over for promotions if senior leaders (wrongly) doubt their ability to perform as well outside of offices. Essentially, the very rules implemented to support staff who need flexibility could end up penalising them.

Job seekers won’t benefit under the new rules either. Companies can now claim to be flexible because it is “available on request”, even if they have no plans to agree to arrangements in practice – employers can legally turn down requests for flexible work for many reasons. This will make it much harder for workers, such as parents who need flexible hours to help with childcare commitments, to find employers who offer working set-ups which suit their needs. This is bad for employers, too. If staff join companies offering “fake flexibility”, they’ll be unhappy and won’t be able to perform at their best. They probably won’t stick around long, either.

Don’t mistake my concerns for being anti-flexibility. Far from it. Flexibility is a not-so-secret superpower for businesses. There is a great deal of research showing how flexible work supports worklife balance and overall wellbeing for employees, and improves talent attraction and retention rates for businesses. However, I am anti-rules which place the burden of responsibility on employees and will leave employers scrambling to implement reactive arrangements which could leave both sides worse off. What staff and businesses deserve are comprehensive flexible working policies which facilitate positive, productive work environments in reality.

Ultimately, the new flexible working rules have let both employers and workers down. So it’s up to employers to step up. Instead of forcing employees to make the first move, employers who recognise and want to reap the full benefits of flexible working must proactively build a strategy for flexible work that considers the needs of both employees and the business.

Of course, this will look different for every organisation. Some companies may decide that a remote-first working setup with enhanced parental leave suits them best. Others may decide that they want to work from the office full-time but offer a 4-day working week. There’s no right or wrong option. Working environments will vary from one company to the next, depending on the needs of the business and its team.

The key is to clearly communicate the company’s approach to flexible working to current staff and job seekers from the outset. Showcasing what’s on offer on the company’s website, social media, and on job ads is the only way for workers to find employers who offer working environments that suit their individual needs. It’s also the best way for companies to find talent who will thrive in the working environment they offer, and build cultures where staff can and want to perform at their best. Employers, it’s your move.