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Flexible working – does it really work?

When the statutory right to request flexible working was first introduced in 2003, it received a very mixed response from employers. Many were concerned that they would be flooded with requests for part time working which they would not be able easily to refuse irrespective of business needs.

In practice, this has not proved to be the case. The statutory procedure (which is, after all, only a right to request, not a right to work flexibly) has not given rise to a significant number of claims and has proved easier to navigate than many employers feared. However, as alternative working patterns become more common and the statutory right to request is proposed to be extended to all employees rather than just those with caring responsibilities, is it inevitable that there will be some backlash against this brave new flexible world?

It is clearly the case that flexible working can be successful for both the employer and the employee. As technology has improved, so logistical issues about working from home and ensuring contactability when not in the office have been ironed out. Happy employees are generally productive employees and if employers are able to accommodate flexible working patterns it can often mean that they don't lose a valued employee in whom they have already invested significant time and money.

However, in order to keep both parties happy, flexibility should ideally be a two way street. Expectations should be made clear from the outset to avoid difficulties later on. For example, if an employee is to be expected to check e-mails and be fully contactable on non-working days, she (and more often than not it is a she – see further below) should be provided with the necessary equipment and reasonable expectations should be discussed before the commencement of the new arrangement. If an employee is not willing to be flexible in return for the flexibility offered to them, the arrangement is destined to fail.

Do

Manage performance of all employees in a measured consistent way, including all female employees both before and after maternity leave. Consider every flexible working request on its merits. Encourage dialogue about how arrangements will function, including home pressures on the mother and child care arrangements (yes, you can ask). Use technology to facilitate flexibility. Ensure you comply with Health & Safety, Data Protection, Landlord & Tenant and other laws and insurance requirements when allowing regular homeworking. Use trial periods to allow employer and employee an opportunity to “test drive” new working arrangements

Don’t

Make assumptions about expectations on either side. Agree and record these in writing Assume flexible working is a one-way street (in either direction). Assume flexible working is a two-way street, unless you’ve talked clearly about how it will function. Ignore the views of other employees who will be affected by the keep them informed about how the arrangements will work.

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