Government proposals to get us all working more flexibly have unleashed a flurry of debate this week.
The suggestion on the table is that going forward, all employees will have the right to request flexible working, in the form of arrangements such as compressed hours, flexitime or working from home.
From 2015, parents will also have more choice about how they use parental leave, giving fathers the opportunity to take a more active role in child care and encouraging women who might otherwise have stayed at home back into the workforce.
The reaction has been mixed – and perhaps not quite as warm as the Government might have wished.
In one corner, are the flexible working converts who have already seen the advantages of working outside the confines of the 9-5 and have been doing it for some time.
These mainly knowledge-based businesses have been able to retain the skills of key employees (particularly women) who place a high value on work life balance and might have headed for pastures new without the opportunity to take a more flexible approach.
In many cases, they have been able to offer an expanded service to customers and clients across longer hours – while at the same time, building a highly engaged and loyal workforce.
On the opposite side of the ring, however, are many beleaguered SMEs, whose operations don’t necessarily neatly lend themselves to people coming and going at different times over a mish-mash of working arrangements.
They are concerned about being able to maintain appropriate levels of customer service, worried about how they will manage the performance of a more flexible workforce and quite frankly dreading the prospect of having to cope with a flood of potentially conflicting flexible working requests from their people, not to mention the administrative challenge of staying on top of planned and unplanned absenses.
As many lawyers have already been quick to point out, there are also a few pitfalls waiting for those who are not properly prepared for the new flexible world. Employers will have to be very careful, for example, that they don’t open themselves up to claims of discrimination by appearing to favour one section of the workforce over another.
It may take a significant culture shift, for example, for managers to ensure they are not considering flexible working requests from men, or those without caring responsibilities, less favourably than those from women with children.
The potential for staff disengagement if requests are not managed carefully is quite high. Employers are not obliged to say yes if they can demonstrate sound reasons why a more flexible arrangement wouldn’t work for the business – and they will also need to make it clear that employees who reduce their hours (and therefore their salary) will not automatically be entitled to increase them again should their financial circumstances suddenly change.
The CIPD has said that employers have nothing to fear and much to gain from the proposed new legislation. It’s probably fair to say that new and less rigid ways of working are inevitable in the years ahead, particularly now that the technology to support remote and more collaborative ways of working is widely available. Many employers are perhaps unnecessarily stuck in a 9-5 rut, thinking that the way they’ve always done things is the only way.
Whether the majority of businesses are actually ready to exploit the advantages of flexible working and geared up to manage the challenges, is, however, a matter that’s up for debate.
What’s your view? Will the proposals be the catalyst for a revolution in the way we approach and organise work – or will it be a step too far and a potential legal minefield for employers?
Let us have your views – and watch this space for our guide to how you can make flexible working work for your business.