The right for an employee to request flexible working hours is set to be extended from 30 June 2014. All employers should, therefore, ensure that they either implement an appropriate procedure or update their existing flexible working policy to reflect the upcoming changes in the law.
From 30 June 2014, all employees with 26 weeks' continuous service will have the right to request flexible working hours, a right that is currently reserved for employees with caring responsibilities (for example, parents of young children or those who care for an adult).
The current flexible working regime has attracted criticism due to its limited application and rigid procedure for dealing with requests. Under the current law employers must comply with unnecessarily strict deadlines, including holding a meeting within 28 days of the request from the employee and notifying the employee of the decision within 14 days of the meeting.
However, from 30 June 2014 the Children and Families Act 2014 gives employers more flexibility to tailor the process of employees requesting the right for flexible working hours to their business, removing the red tape surrounding the current process. Employers will only have to consider requests in a "reasonable manner" rather than comply with a strict statutory procedure.
"Reasonable manner" offers employers little guidance when implementing a new procedure and so helpfully ACAS have provided guidelines. Whilst these guidelines are not binding on employers, they will be considered by an Employment Tribunal when determining whether an employer has dealt with an employee's request reasonably. The guidelines include several measures that are intended to safeguard the interests of employees including the employee having the right to be accompanied at a meeting, the right for an employee to have written reasons detailing why their request has been refused and that a request may be rejected if it is justified by one of eight specified business reasons. The "business reasons" are unchanged from the current law and include refusing a request on the basis of the burden of additional costs, an inability to reorganise work amongst existing staff, and the detrimental impact it would have on the ability of the business to meet customer demands.
The change to the right to request flexible working stands to benefit a huge number of employees and has the potential to allow employees to balance their work life and personal commitments, even where they do not have caring responsibilities. However, the reality of the situation is that an employer can still refuse any request if it is reasonable to do so.
In terms of what employers should be doing prior to 30 June 2014, if your organisation already has a flexible working request procedure you may want to consider amending it to make it more flexible and to make it clear that the right to request flexible working is no longer limited to certain categories of employees. Current policies are likely to reflect the current rigid and prescriptive statutory procedure when there is now scope to introduce some flexibility to suit your organisation. If your organisation does not already have a policy, we would advise that you put one in place so that employees are clear on the process.
In ACAS' guidance, emphasis has been placed on addressing attitudes towards flexible working and that granting such requests, where operationally possible, can create a happy and trusting work environment. However, this may not be easy for small employers where the work force is stretched when an employee reduces their hours.
Given that employers can still reasonably refuse a request, it will be interesting to see whether extending the right to request flexible working to include more employees will have any practical effect.