Its proposal is to introduce measures to help make flexible working the default, unless employers have good reasons not to. It aims to bring more employees into the scope of the legislation by making the right to request flexible working available from day-1 of employment. The government has recognised that external events (for example, the Covid-19 pandemic and its associated impact on home-life and caring responsibilities) are not limited to people who have worked in their roles for 6 months. It has also been raised that underrepresented groups, like new parents and disabled workers, are more in need of flexible working opportunities. However, there is a wider belief that the introduction of these measures will benefit productivity, motivation, retention and competitiveness, as well as help attract more talent to organisations.
The consultation is also assessing whether the current 8 business reasons for refusal are still valid, although the assumption is that fundamental changes are not needed in this area.
A separate assessment is being completed into the administrative processes associated with managing flexible working requests; specifically, the time scales for responding and the ability for employees to make more than one request per year, which is currently all they are entitled to. The government is considering allowing employees to submit a higher number of requests, to remove any unnecessary barriers to accessing flexible working arrangements amongst those whose personal situations might be impacted more frequently than every 12 months.
Similarly, the statutory Code of Practice outlines that employers should respond to requests within a 3-month period but the government is debating whether to make it a requirement to respond more promptly and the effect on organisations if this was introduced. Organisations should already be prepared for processing flexible working requests without any unreasonable delays, with many of them not needing the full 3 months to respond. As such, it is expected that this change, if implemented, won’t have a detrimental impact on organisations. But, employers may need to be prepared to manage a surge in requests being submitted by their workforce. This might involve hiring more HR personnel and undertaking training courses to ensure managers know how to deal with requests efficiently.
In addition, if the proposal is approved, employers should be prepared to amend their current policies and procedures on flexible working, to ensure they are compliant with the new legislation. We await the outcome of the consultation to see the exact impact on current practices and better understand what organisations will have to do moving forwards.