September is a prime time of year for employers receiving flexible working requests.
As the new school year starts, family life may return to normal for many employees after the disruption of the summer holidays; but for some, with children starting in reception, weekly schedules may be turned on their heads.
For them, gone are the days of being able to place a child in nursery from 8am to 6pm. Now there are school hours to contend with: approximately 8:45am to 3:15pm. In those first few weeks the days can be so tough for little ones that they only do two or three hours at a time. What’s a working parent to do? And their employers!
Will flexible working be the answer?
Flexible working explained
It can be easy to equate flexible working only with working from home, especially post pandemic. Flexible working though can be a whole variety of solutions. Alongside working from home, it could be taken to mean:
- Reduced hours
- Compressed or annualised hours
- Amended start and finish times
- Hybrid working
- Job shares
- Term-time working
- Shift swapping
- Part-time working
- V-time working (a voluntary reduction in hours with the promise of a return to full-time hours at an agreed point)
From this list, there a lots of options to cater for a change in personal circumstances like a child starting school, or indeed any other reason for requesting flexible working.
What does the law say about flexible working?
Legally, you don’t have to permit flexible working if it does not work for your business. However, employees may have the right to request it. When they do, you must give it proper consideration.
Currently, so long as an employee has 26 weeks’ continuous employment, they have the right to make one flexible working request in every 12-month period. The request must be in writing and you have three months in which to consider it and arrive at a decision. During this time you may discuss the request with the employee.
You are perfectly entitled to reject the flexible working request, but your decision to do so must be underpinned by a solid business reason – something like the burden of additional costs on you or a negative impact on performance.
A balanced approach to flexible working
Do balance the positives of flexible working requests in your decision making, too. Your employee is engaging with you when faced with a challenge in their personal life (in the case of the school scenario. Sometimes the request may be more whimsical.). If they are good, finding a solution that works for both parties may be key to retaining them.
If they have gone down the formal process laid out above, a permanent change of contract will be required, should you grant the request. Clarify with them that this is what they want. If the motivation is a temporary one – like a reception age child being on half-days for two weeks – a more informal, temporary agreement may be reached.
It is important to treat all staff fairly. This does not mean that if you grant flexible working for one, you must do it for all. After all, roles may differ considerably, as well as individuals’ capabilities to perform under the flexible working arrangement.
Tread with caution though. The risk of discrimination should also enter your thought process. There are nine protected characteristics on which a case could be brought, including sex, age, pregnancy and maternity and religion.
Avoiding indirect discrimination may be particularly hard to get right. One recent tribunal case saw a claimant win when she was denied a minor adjustment to her hours that would have freed her up to collect her daughter from nursery in the evening.
Note also that legislation is on the way that will extend the right to request flexible working arrangements. Among other things it will grant a day one right to ask for flexible working, allow for two requests a year and shorten your time to respond.
Help getting it right
A flexible working request written policy will help you approach any requests with consistency, as well as educating your team on what is possible. If you do not have one and would like help, please contact your local HR Dept office. They can also help if you are struggling to respond to flexible working requests compliantly.