Big changes are afoot on the flexible working front, with new regulations coming into force on 30th June which will extend the right to request flexible working to all employees with 26 weeks service.

This is a significant shift from the previous situation, where it was primarily parents and carers who had the right to ask for changes in their working times, practices or patterns.

Whether the new legislation will result in a flood of requests remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt that employers need to gen up on the new rules for managing requests and revise their policies accordingly.

The full details of the changes can be found in this comprehensive guide from ACAS – but in a nutshell, employees need to comply with a set procedure when making a request and employers have to respond within a three month time frame and need to have a strong business case for refusing requests (you can also find the list of specific reasons for refusing requests in the ACAS guide).

Many employers have of course already switched on to the benefits of  flexible working for all and the role it can play in helping to build happy, productive workforces.

The reality, however, is that not every request can be granted – and there will be times when it simply isn’t viable for the business to say yes without seriously compromising its ability to deliver the goods and meet customer needs.  It’s worth remembering it is a right to request, not a right to have the request granted.

The challenge for managers dealing with requests on the ground, however, is to make sure they really are making a balanced decision and are not inadvertently opening themselves up to accusations of unfair treatment.

These are some of the key questions that can help the business – and individual managers – think through their response and make sure they are making the right decision.

Are we stuck in a nine-to-five rut?

It’s surprising how many companies are still operating around a conventional nine-to-five model when a more flexible approach to working hours could in fact have enormous benefits for their business.    There are numerous ways to slice and dice working arrangements so that they work to commercial as well as personal advantage.  There are condensed hours (full time hours condensed into 3 or 4 days), staggered hours (full time hours over different times, i.e. 7am-3pm or 11am-7pm) or perhaps a nine day fortnight.  Other options include term time working, school hours working, job sharing or flexi time.  All of these can help the business respond to customer needs more efficiently and hang on to talented staff who might otherwise jump ship and go elsewhere.  Make sure you are thinking widely and creatively about the way work can be organised and are not stuck in a rut of ‘the way we’ve always done things around here’.

Are we resisting something we are already doing?

Scratch beneath the surface and you find that most businesses are actually implementing flexible working to some degree anyway.

One of the finance managers comes in late every other Friday so that     he can take his elderly mother to a regular hospital appointment – but works through his lunch to make up the time.  A member of the marketing team works remotely one afternoon a week, juggling her appointments so that she can pick her children up from school on the nanny’s day off.

All unofficial but highly effective arrangements, which are negotiated individually within teams. The work gets done, employees are grateful (and therefore more likely to remain loyal and engaged), the business benefits all round – but no-one talks about it openly for fear of opening the floodgates.  Take time to look at how much flexible working is already going on in your business – and see what you can learn from the successful experiences around you.

Are we talking about small tweaks or big changes?

Despite commonly held perceptions, extending flexible working doesn’t have to mean making large and disruptive changes.  Often, it’s the small tweaks that make the difference.  Allowing an employee to work 10-6 instead of 9-5, for example, could help employees better balance their responsibilities both in and outside of work.

Companies are often surprisingly reluctant to make these small changes.  I spoke to one woman recently who had left her job because her manager wouldn’t allow her to shift her working day by half an hour so she could pick her child up from nursery on time.  It’s this kind of attitude that can lead to valuable talent (not to mention knowledge and customer relationships) being lost.  Be honest with yourself.  Would it really cause a problem if you allowed an employee to make a small change to their normal working arrangements (because small changes is generally what people want)?  Or would it cause a bigger problem if they headed for the hills?  Making these small changes can also have a real impact on absence levels in the business.  Often absence isn’t really due to illness at all – it’s masquerading as illness when the problem really is that people are struggling to balance complicated lives.  If people know a request for a bit of flexibility or the odd day working from home is going to fall on deaf ears, they are more likely to ‘throw a sickie’ so that they can deal with whatever situation has arisen.

Can we use flexible working to our advantage?

We are now working in a 24/7 global culture where customers are becoming increasingly demanding.  They expect to be able to access goods and services outside of normal working hours and thanks to technology and the rise of social media, want an almost instant response.  Flexible working can actually help companies deliver a better, more responsive service.  It has the potential to extend the working day so that people are on hand to answer questions, deal with issues and progress projects beyond the 9-5.  Employees are often more than willing to work outside conventional hours.  Women with childcare responsibilities, for example, may find it easier to work at weekends when other family members are around.  People who are natural ‘larks’ may be happy to start early – so that they can finish early and have time to pursue a hobby or interest they have outside of work.  Try having open and honest conversations with your employees about how work could be better arranged to suit both them and the business – you may be surprised at what you hear!

Are we really clear about why we are saying no?

Flexible working in a knowledge-based business is a bit of a no-brainer.  Thanks to technology it now really is possible for people to work anytime, anyplace anywhere – and flexible working is positively helpful in allowing companies to bring project teams together across different time zones and from different locations.  It can, however, be more of a challenge in a business where customers need the ‘doors’ to be open at set times.  There will be cases where you feel you really have to say no to a request – but before you do, make sure you have really thought through all the issues, can justify your response and are not giving a knee-jerk reaction.  Above all, make sure you are not letting personal feelings about an employee get in the way of your decision.  If you say yes to someone who is seen as a ‘favourite’ – and no to someone who you have a less positive relationship with – it can pave the way for ill-feeling and resentment in the team.

Are you prepared for managing flexible working requests under the new regulations? Let us know what issues and challenges you see ahead – and what is already working well in your business.


Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.